Stu­dio pro­file

Tom May vis­its the col­lege that trains il­lus­tra­tors and an­i­ma­tors, with alumni that are work­ing on some of the world’s big­gest films

ImagineFX - - Contents -

Es­cape Stu­dios alumni work on block­buster films.

Of­fer­ing train­ing in visual ef­fects for the game, tele­vi­sion and film in­dus­tries, Es­cape Stu­dios, part of Pear­son Col­lege Lon­don, at­tracts a wide range of stu­dents. And they’re not all what you’d ex­pect.

Take Pene­lope Pochez. By 2015, she was work­ing as an il­lus­tra­tor for an­i­ma­tion stu­dios. Hav­ing grad­u­ated from New York art col­lege Par­sons in 2009, she’d been gain­fully em­ployed as a back­ground de­signer and pre-pro­duc­tion artist at Cu­ri­ous Pic­tures, Tit­mouse NY and Flick­erLab An­i­ma­tion Stu­dios, on an­i­ma­tions such as Adult Swim’s Su­per­jail!. So why on earth would she want to go back to school?

“I moved to the UK to follow my boyfriend,” Pene­lope says. “And there’s less de­mand here for illustration for an­i­ma­tion: the industry is more geared to­wards visual ef­fects. So it just made sense to make that switch.”

Con­se­quently, Pene­lope de­cided to train in com­posit­ing: the art of com­bin­ing filmed footage and dig­i­tally cre­ated back­grounds and ef­fects to make a sin­gle, seam­less scene. And while there were a num­ber of col­leges teach­ing visual ef­fects and an­i­ma­tion, Es­cape Stu­dios stood out.

“It seemed like it was the most prac­ti­cally fo­cused, the most in­ter­ested in get­ting us jobs and teach­ing us the right skills,” she says. Speak to the tu­tors there, and you’ll hear a sim­i­lar story. Es­cape Stu­dios places a strong fo­cus on prac­ti­cal skills, with all cour­ses geared to pro­duc­ing showreels that can get stu­dents into jobs.

strong industry ties

“Our teach­ers all come from the industry,” points out Davi Stein, head of 2D, who’s worked on movies in­clud­ing The Dark Knight, Pi­rates of the Caribbean and the Harry Pot­ter films. “So we have very close ties with the big visual ef­fects stu­dios. And we’re con­stantly in con­tact about what skills they want grad­u­ates to come out with.”

The col­lege now has more than 4,000 alumni (dubbed Es­capees), who’ve worked on movies in­clud­ing Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens, Ex Machina, Shaun the Sheep and The Jun­gle Book. And this cre­ates a vir­tu­ous cir­cle, says Alex Wil­liams, head of an­i­ma­tion. “We’re recog­nised as the place where peo­ple

learn industry-rel­e­vant skills,” he says. “And our Es­capees are feed­ing back all the time. They’re telling us: ‘I’m work­ing at such and such a place and this is a par­tic­u­lar skill you need to do this.’ So we’re con­stantly tweak­ing what we do.”

As im­por­tant as the skills them­selves are the way they’re taught. “One of our big things is mak­ing sure the stu­dents get the real ex­pe­ri­ence of a work in pro­duc­tion,” ex­plains Mark Spe­vick, head of 3D. “So I run the class­room en­vi­ron­ment so it’s as close to a film pro­duc­tion en­vi­ron­ment as pos­si­ble, with ridicu­lous dead­lines and client re­views. These may come from industry part­ners as well as our­selves, so stu­dents re­ally feel the pres­sure.”

Full-on learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment

The work is hard and re­lent­less, he stresses. “On our short cour­ses, for in­stance, you’re in the class­rooms from 10am to 5pm ev­ery sin­gle day. It’s full on lec­tures from 10 till one; the whole morn­ing de­voted to the­ory. Then in the af­ter­noons we put that into prac­tice on projects. By the end, you end up with two pieces for your showreel to get a job with.”

Known for its post­grad­u­ate and short (three-month) cour­ses, this Septem­ber Es­cape Stu­dios is launch­ing a host of new un­der­grad­u­ate cour­ses. But don’t ex­pect these to be any less prac­ti­cal, says Mark. “A big part of it for me will be screw­ing stu­dents up like you would in real movie pro­duc­tion,” he smiles.

“So in the mid­dle of do­ing their projects, I’m very likely to come along and change the brief, like a direc­tor would. Or sud­denly take the job off them and give them an­other job com­pletely. We might even break the servers. So the idea is that when they get into industry it’s not a cul­ture shock – they know how it is in real life.”

So how do you ap­ply? First, at­tend a taster day. This will in­volve an ac­tual day of study, so you re­ally can try be­fore you buy. If you’re still keen, you can ap­ply for the short cour­ses di­rectly via the web­site, while for the un­der­grad­u­ate and post­grad­u­ate course, you’ll need to go through UCAS, the UK’s or­gan­i­sa­tion for man­ag­ing and as­sign­ing uni­ver­sity places.

it’s not just about the grades

Mark stresses, though, that grades aren’t the main thing you’ll be judged on. “It’s more about the po­ten­tial that we see in peo­ple,” he ex­plains. “We’re about cre­at­ing artists who can craft and cre­ate won­der­ful things. You may not be aca­dem­i­cally great, but if we see an abil­ity in you, we’ll take you on. So if you’ve got a yearn­ing to get into the industry and you’ve done a lit­tle bit out­side, we’re sure to be able to find a course that suits you.”

Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, there’s no re­quire­ment to be pro­fi­cient in any par­tic­u­lar soft­ware, says Davi. “Most stu­dents com­ing in have used a bit of Pho­to­shop. Some have done Af­ter Ef­fects, or played with Cinema 4D. But some come in with­out any graph­ics ex­pe­ri­ence at all. It is pos­si­ble,

al­though you’d have to prac­tise quite a lot at the be­gin­ning to get your head around the gen­eral con­cepts – lay­er­ing im­ages, things like that.”

More im­por­tant than tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, though, is “the pas­sion and the drive to want to learn that stuff and want to en­ter the industry,” she says. “Ded­i­ca­tion, pas­sion, hard work – those are the most im­por­tant things. As well as an open mind, to think a bit dif­fer­ently.”

Stu­dents at Es­cape Stu­dios work in class­rooms that are de­signed to feel like a real VFX stu­dio en­vi­ron­ment.

Al­lar Kaasik, one of Es­cape Stu­dio’s 2D tu­tors, over­sees the progress of one of the stu­dent’s projects.

To en­hance the feel of a real-life stu­dio, lec­tur­ers will of­ten throw span­ners into the works, such as change the brief or even shut down the servers.

No pre­vi­ous knowl­edge of 3D soft­ware is needed, but there is a steep learn­ing curve.

Va­nia Al­ban-Zapata, one of Es­cape’s 3D VFX tu­tors, lends his ex­pert ad­vice to a stu­dent.

Ge­orge O’Ke­effe’s Diner Diao­rama ref­er­ences a 1950s See­burg juke­box in stun­ning de­tail.

This 50s diner is an game en­vi­ron­ment mod­elled in Maya by Ge­orge O’Ke­effe. Finer de­tails were painted us­ing ZBrush.

Es­cape Stu­dios’ close links with the VFX industry gives it ac­cess to the lat­est in soft­ware and tech­niques.

MA stu­dent Pene­lope Pochez demon­strates her ad­vanced com­posit­ing skills in this cas­tle scene.

Class sizes are kept de­lib­er­ately small.

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