Why I went
After about 18 months at HMX Media I decided I needed a change. I’d worked on some good projects there but I felt like I needed to move up to the next level. I’d imagined that one day I might get to work on films but while I worked in Manchester this seemed like a bit of a dream. In Soho I walked past places like MPC and Framestore every day, which made the idea seem a lot more realistic.
Although my roles had been getting more specific in each job, I still felt like a bit of a generalist. I could edit a bit; I had been using After Effects for 18 months solid and I could encode and master.
I started looking for new jobs. To begin with I didn’t narrow my options. I was looking at editing roles, graphics roles, production roles and even jobs in machine rooms but I had the same problem with all of them. The bigger companies didn’t want people who could do a bit of everything. They wanted you to have a few solid years experience in whichever role you were applying for.
Ever since I had started tinkering with After Effects at university, I had always been interested in visual effects and HMX Media had definitely changed my direction from editing to compositing. At some point I must have realised that if I was going to make it into films it would be in visual effects rather than editing.
I thought I should set my sights high and aim for the big VFX houses in London: Framestore, DNeg, Cinesite and MPC. I considered applying for runner positions but talking to a guy who was running at Framestore, I realised that I couldn’t really afford to take what would be a pretty big pay cut.
I can’t remember how I first heard about Escape Studios but I didn’t make the decision to go there quickly. I think I first just discounted the idea completely because of the expense but as other options dried up and I became more decided that it was compositing that I wanted to do, I started to consider Escape again.
Escape Studios is a commercially-run school that runs courses aimed at getting people employed in the VFX and gaming industries. They offer a range of full-time and part-time courses. I was tempted by the part-time evening courses or the VFX course, but after several conversations with the staff at Escape and a trip to the open day, I decided I had to go for the full-time compositing course.
The course cost £8,500 and ran five days a week for 12 weeks, so not only was it expensive but it meant I wouldn’t be earning a wage for three months either. I was in the fortunate situation of already living close to the school and having a sum of inheritance that would cover the fees and help me with my rent. I also have a very supportive girlfriend who helped me out too. I decided that spending a large amount of money for a relatively short, fixed length of time was more manageable than being on a runner’s wage for a longer, unknown timeframe.
Unlike the VFX course at Escape, which covered quite a range of disciplines (camera tracking, modelling, animation, texturing, lighting etc.) the compositing course was aimed directly at compositing. But because the larger companies were unlikely to hire someone who had no feature film experience as a compositor, I was told that after the course I should expect to be hired as a paint and roto artist rather than a compositor. The course had been designed with this in mind.
There were eight people in our class, although there was room for 12 and there was a huge range in experience between us. Several of us had already been working in the media industry, using things like After Effects and Photoshop and wanted to move into film. There was also an independent film maker who wanted to learn more about visual effects for his own projects and then there were several people who had no experience in any kind of graphics at all.
The course was based entirely in a classroom and ran 10:00 – 17:00. Our teacher was Mark Pinheiro, who had designed the course. He was friendly and knowledgeable and could hold your attention well. There were several other guys who came in to teach Silhouette and camera tracking as they had more experience than Mark in these particular packages.
Each morning Mark would start the lesson by showing a behind-the-scenes feature from a DVD. The feature that he picked would be related to the topic that he would be covering that day. He would then discuss the topic and demonstrate points with some very well designed examples. We would then spend the rest of the morning working through some more examples while Mark walked around giving individuals assistance. After lunch there was usually another set of examples from Mark and then we would work on our ‘project’ shots for the rest of the afternoon. The format was not quite this formal but this was an average day.
The ‘project’ shots were shots that we worked on for the length of the course. We all picked different elements from the library and created our own composites, adding to them as we learned new skills. By the end of the course, most of us had three or fours shots that we completed to a high enough standard to use in our showreels. The classroom stayed open until 21:00 each night so students could continue to work on these shots after lessons.
Probably the best thing about the course was the material that we got to work with. Because the course aim was to get people ready for jobs in the big London posthouses there seems to have been a lot of co-operation from them. All of our example shots used footage from movies donated by Framestore, MPC, dNneg, Cinesite etc. and there were folders and folders full of plates and CG renders that we could use for our project shots.
What was covered
The overall structure of the course was very well thought through and covered all of the essential topics a compositing course should.
In our first week we went through the maths for all of the basic operations: premultiplying, layering, colour corrections, etc. It was all much simpler than I had thought and I could work a lot of it out in my head. After Effects had hidden a lot of this from me but Shake forced you to think about it. This knowledge made it much easier to understand other topics and applications during the course.
We spent a week on rotoscoping technique and almost all of this was done in Silhouette, which was great as it is what Framestore uses.
Then we spent several weeks learning rig removal techniques. We covered all of the basic patching techniques as well as exploring some of the 3D projection options in Nuke. This included 2D tracking, paint tools, warping and colour matching techniques. We also spent a few days covering basic camera tracking and how to get our cameras into Nuke.
After covering keying technique in quite some detail we went into less detail for the more advanced topics but we touched on a lot including retiming, grain management, video issues and showreel tips.
We started the course using Shake because it was still the standard compositing application at the time but also because it was pretty simple in how it worked, each node only did one thing. This made it easy to work out what was happening for beginners.
Nuke hadn’t taken over from Shake in 2008 but Mark had used it enough to transfer most of our Shake knowledge over. By the end of the course we were using Nuke as standard and had started to use its newer features like the 3D space. A lot of the time though Mark was learning Nuke with us as we went along, which wasn’t a bad thing.
Although the classroom wasn’t a particularly exciting space it was pretty well kitted out. We all had decent machines running Linux. We only had one monitor each but they were a good size. Getting used to the Linux setup was really useful and allowed me to hit the ground running when I started at Framestore.
Since leaving the course and working at Framestore I have found one issue with the course. Although the paint techniques that we learned were good, the standard to which we worked was way off. At Framestore they stress that our paint work should change the plates as little as possible but at Escape we were taught that we could get away with changing large areas if it made it easier. We were also told we should never have to paint frame-by-frame and were therefore never taught any techniques for this. I had to learn this at Framestore and once I had, it was an invaluable skill. The hardest rig removal shots that I have done could never have been done in any other way.
I learned a lot in my 12 weeks at Escape. A lot of it I could have learned from other sources but having direct contact with a teacher who had worked in the companies you were aiming for was an ideal way for me to work.
I think my prior experience helped me get more from the course than the people who were starting from scratch but the ones who applied themselves, continued learning outside of the lesson time and knew what they were aiming for did well too.
Within a month of leaving the course, I’d got a job in the paint and roto department at Framestore. I wouldn’t have got the job here without some kind of extra training but I think the Escape course gave me an extra confidence that I might not have got from online courses.
I’m not going to say that Escape is the right choice for everyone but when I think back to my decision to go I have absolutely no regrets.
Check out the reel I had at the end of my Escape course, most of the 3D electronics and sports stuff is from my job at HMX Media but most of the live action plates are from Escape.