A REVIEW OF THE Vancouver Film School (VFS) - 3D Animation & Visual Effects PROGRAM.
BY REMO W. WHO GRADUATED IN 2007
I enrolled in the Vancouver Film School’s 3D Animation and VFX Program back in 2007. My background was in graphic design for print and web. I always had a passion for art in general and was a total movie junky. I was looking at VFS to help me start a new career in the middle of my life. I was 35 when I enrolled which pretty much made me a senior citizen in the field, but to their credit, nobody ever made me feel awkward about that. We were all there with hope and enthusiasm and the bond of our shared goals more than made up for any age differences. Among my classmates I have come to respect many as the fantastic artists they are, and I count several as great friends to this day.
The insanely high tuition was a hard pill to swallow. At the time of my enrollment it was just under $30,000. I felt that even though this was a lot of money to spend, if it really leads to a new and exciting career, it would be a small price to pay. Going back to University and finishing a 4 or 5 year program would after all be even more expensive if you count in lost wages and living expenses for that time. And ultimately having made such a huge and non-refundable financial commitment was one of the things that drove me to work so hard during my year at VFS. My initial impression based on the work former students continually post on forums like CGtalk, and the very professional appearance of the school based on their promotional materials and orientations made me think they might be worth all that money. My first day in the program was a bit of a rude awakening. The actual location of the 3D program is in a very cramped and dilapidated office building just south of Davie St. It looks like a poor cousin to the facilities of any of the other local schools for 3D animation, and this is the place where you will practically live for the next year if you enrol. But so what? What really matters is the quality of the instruction and the valuable connections you make while you are there.
I have never worked so hard in my life. I spent between 11 – 14 hours a day, 7 days a week in that place for a year.
Now, everyone will tell you that this program is hard, but it’s difficult to imagine what they mean by that. It’s like when you go to a pub and order the “spicy” chicken wings. I mean, they say they are spicy, but you like spicy food, so you should be fine, right? But how spicy is their “spicy”? Well, let me tell you: at VFS the answer is “VERY”. I have never worked so hard in my life. I spent between 11 – 14 hours a day, 7 days a week in that place for a year. Breaks between most terms were a 4 day weekend. In the first 6 months we had 48 hours of instruction per week, and lots and lots of homework on top of that. Every second of my day was accounted for. I had to completely adjust everything about my lifestyle. For example, I stopped making peanut butter sandwiches because the peanut butter is sticky and makes it hard to swallow which wastes time that I could be spending doing my homework or getting a bit of sleep before I have to be in class again. It was that kind of crazy. And no amount of work ever seemed like enough. We kept being told that at most only a quarter of us would get jobs upon graduating, and that we would have to try much harder if we wanted to have a future. With the constant pressure, and us all packed in like sardines in that dingy place I also ended up being sick much of the time. The workload in that place nearly did me in. By the time I graduated I looked 10 years older, I was skinny and pale and trembling as I accepted my diploma, but I had accomplished more in a shorter time than I would have ever dreamed. I had a very original demo reel and felt optimistic about my prospects for the future.
A Few Specific Notes About The Program
Even though VFS is a private career oriented school, their programs are still have quite a few B.S. courses that really won’t help you get a job. My personal grievance was with the Classical Animation classes. We had 6 hours a week of those in the first 2 terms with lots of homework, and for those of us who had no plans to even enter into the animation stream they were really not all that helpful. Those concepts could have been taught really easily and quickly in 3D rather than having us spend hours and hours hand drawing 2d animation exercises with pencil and paper and scanning them. The History of Animation class was also useless, but at least enjoyable for the most part. History of Film was fairly painful, we were forced to watch a never ending stream of scenes from musicals and really only talked about camera angles and moves there. Not a single current movie in the bunch which seems like a major oversight if you are hoping to work in VFX. I could also easily have done without any of the sculpture classes as modeling in 3D just seems basically like the same thing. It sounds nitpicky, but when you are paying so much money, these things really get to you. But let’s be honest, any program is going to be like that. If you were going to a college you’d have a lot more prerequisites even less related to your field. So my advice is this: Pay attention in those classes, do your work, but don’t stress out about them. Focus just on what matters to you. In the middle of your program you have to declare your specialty. Either Modeling, Animation, or VFX. The problem is that by the time you have to make that decision they really have not taught you anything about VFX so it is really hard to know what you should do. You spend so much time on animation and have only one crappy course in After Effects of all things. They do tell you that you will have to learn a bunch of new software if you go into VFX which seems really insane at that point in the program as you are only just barely getting a handle on the software they’ve taught you so far. The VFX stream in general was a disaster as far as I could tell during the time when I had to make my decision. So I went into the modeling stream instead because at least I knew that this was something VFS did really well. But as soon as I made my decision, the mentor of the VFX stream was replaced by Al, an extremely competent and likeable instructor which really made me wish I had gone into that stream after all, but it was too late by then. For the last 3 months you are in the “Ant Farm”; A huge open lab where you have access to a computer of your own 24/7. Your class load is reduced to a minimum, and from that point on you are really learning more from your classmates than any of the mentors, instructors or lab aids. This is not intended as a slight, and it is not as if the instructors or aids are unapproachable, this really just is how things work in the industry. If you are in a good class and get along great with your classmates then this is where you will really begin to shine.
The Ant Farm is really the secret of VFS’s success. The fact that they give you a full 6 months to work on your demo reel is the reason why the work from VFS students always outshines that of almost all other schools. This is of course good for you, though I’m not convinced that it means you learned more than you could have at another school. It is however really good for VFS’s business as the impressive work of their graduates becomes in turn their advertising to attract new students. The other thing you should know is that almost all the most outstanding demo reels come from students who already had a background in 3d BEFORE they came to VFS. Some of them even reuse assets they created before coming to VFS to enhance their reel. Don’t expect your work to look like theirs if you are new to the field as I was. My demo reel is a good example of what you can actually accomplish if you are a fairly good artist, are disciplined and work insanely hard: www.remow.info. Every few weeks during the last 3 terms you have to make a presentation in front of all your classmates and a panel composed of the director of the 3D program and the mentors of the 3 respective streams. These presentations felt just like American Idol, only there were 2 Simon Cowells. Every time we would have to hear how we were never going to finish what we proposed to do, that it wasn’t good enough, that we should just give up and try something easier. The animation mentor’s contributions (ironically the only woman) were a bit like Paula Abdul’s in their eccentricity and uselessness. The fourth panellist was the VFX mentor who is now the head of the whole program and I have nothing but good things to say about him. He really raised the bar.
The Job Search
I didn’t get a job immediately after graduation. Luckily I had my old career to fall back on while I looked for something in the 3d field. My first disappointment was that there are virtually no companies using XSI anymore. I had just spent a whole year getting intimately acquainted with XSI, I knew all its ticklish spots, knew how to behave when it was being moody, and ultimately fell in love with it. But it was looking like it was not meant to be. Other than Nerd Corps in Vancouver, Ubisoft in Montreal, or Hybride in Piedmont Quebec, there are really hardly any XSI shops in Canada. So before you decide to go to VFS, ask what software package they are teaching, and take a look at some job boards to see how many jobs there really are. Currently Maya seems most popular, Max is still doing quite well, but XSI is really hurting.
After about 4 months of going to interviews in the Vancouver area for crappy 3D jobs, I ended up getting the opportunity of a lifetime.
After about 4 months of going to interviews in the Vancouver area for crappy 3D jobs (mostly short term contract work for very little money, none of it XSI), I ended up getting the opportunity of a lifetime: I got a job offer to come work for the elite in-house special effects team of director Robert Rodriguez. He was at the time planning to film a remake of the cult classic “Barbarella”, and I was so excited about it I would have paid them just for the opportunity to be a part of it. The only problem was that the job was in the US and I was a Canadian citizen. Jobs in this industry are generally short term contracts for relatively small companies. They do not have staff lawyers or a department to deal with getting you a visa, and they will never plan ahead. They post a job and want you to start within a week generally. So it fell upon me to quickly become an expert of US immigration policy and here is what I found: As a Canadian, your best bet is a TN work permit. Look up the requirements for it to see if you qualify. If you have the right background you can come into the country that way as a “Graphic Designer” or “Computer Analyst”. The reason I stress this is because there are just so many more jobs in the US than there are in Canada. But beware: there are no guarantees; if you get the wrong border guard you will be denied your permit. And your permit is only temporary, when it runs out you have to leave the country or renew it before it runs out. But it is always going to be scary and stressful. You can’t ever make long-term plans because you can never count on being able to get or renew your permit. On one occasion I was actually kicked out of the country on a technicality while trying to renew my permit and had a very hard time getting back in. You spend your life on standby, always ready to move, never putting down roots. It’s hard and lonely. In general my career has not gone as smoothly as I had hoped. The “Barbarella” movie I worked on died after a few months. The production company failed to inform me that they didn’t even have a green light yet. Always be sure to establish that before you make a big move for a job. After that I worked at Janimation in Dallas for a little while, and then returned to Austin Texas to work on another movie for Robert doing both previs and post-production that time. Now my work permit has run out again, and I am back in Canada looking for new projects, but the economy is bad, there is still a possible actor’s strike which is making it risky to produce new films, and I am finding that I need to retrain myself to use Maya and be willing to relocate again to go-knows-where in the world if I want to get another gig. There are just so few jobs in this field and so many people applying for them. VFS itself puts out 30 new people every 2 months just from their 3d Animation and VFX program, and then there is also their Maya Animation program. And VFS is only one of half a dozen schools like it in Vancouver, and Vancouver is only one of many cities in Canada with schools like that. The end result is that your odds of finding work after graduation are very, very slim. My advice: if you want an exciting new career, audition for Canadian Idol and be a Rockstar. Your odds of achieving that are probably about the same and it’s a lot cheaper.
But if you have more money than you know what to do with and want to give it to VFS, and are willing to spend the rest of your life in front of a computer, constantly retrain yourself, never see the light of day anymore, constantly look for new work, move a lot, have no job security, make fairly little money, probably end up popping mood stabilizers as if they were M&M’s just to cope with the stress, eventually probably have your girlfriend or wife leave you (that is, if you can even find one. Computer nerd work = not sexy), never work less than 50 hours a week, be out of work every time any one of the innumerable unions of the film world goes on strike, work miracles every day and still have nobody know your name. If that kind of thing appeals to you, then VFS might be a good choice for you. I’m not complaining though. VFS gave me a good kick in the ass at a time in my life when I really needed one. I was lucky enough to be able to afford the tuition, and I had some fantastic adventures since graduation. Sure I spent a lot of money on the tuition, but I’ve lost more money than that in recent months due to the performance of the stock market. That’s life. But if you have to get loans to pay for the tuition, think long and hard about it. I would call that a very risky investment.