Article

The Creative Student’s Handbook – Schools!

3D Schools - are they worth it? This is the million dollar question everyone is asking. The short answer is annoyingly ambiguous: Maybe.

There are so many factors involved when asking if going to school is the right choice for you. People are vastly different: skill sets, ability to learn, social skills, financial situation; the list goes on. The same is true for the 3D schools out there: Some are amazing, others are mediocre, some are appalling and certain ones are damn right frauds. While I won't be able to say if going to schools is the right choice for you, hopefully you'll have enough information to make that decision yourself.

TL;DR

  • Going to school can be awesome!
  • Carefully pick your school. The wrong school can do more harm than good.
  • Certain schools are extremely expensive.
  • Getting a degree can be very helpful if you want a visa in a foreign country.
  • You will NOT get a job simply by attending a 3D school, no matter what the school tells you.
  • Going to schools is NOT a requirement for getting a job in 3D; your portfolio is far more important than any bachelor degree.
  • Your showreel is king. However, a good school can really help you make a kick-ass showreel.
  • If you find the right school, it can be one of the best decisions of your life.
  • Networking is extremely important in this field. Going to school can be an amazing networking tool.
  • The Animation Workshop is great. Seriously, check it out.

Intro

Speaking from my personal experience, going to school was a very good choice. I went to The Animation Workshop (TAW) in Denmark where I got my Bachelor Degree. The reason TAW was a great choice is due to several aspects of the school. First off, it’s a really good school. I really did my research before choosing a school and TAW was exactly what I was after. All the teachers were hired professionals, the curriculum was relevant and they used Maya and other industry standards as their main tools. I was also highly motivated and I did a lot of personal work during my years there. The school was also relatively cheap compared to a lot of other alternatives, costing roughly $11,000 for three years. I also made a lot of good friends during my stay at TAW. Combining all these factors, it turned out to be a great investment for me: My skills increased
significantly, my professional network grew, I got a lot of new friends and at the end of it all, I grew a lot as a person. In short: Hell yeah
!  paintPretty picture of some brushes and paint. Trust me, it's a metaphor.

Harsh Truths

Before we get into specifics about school, here are some truths you need to understand.

  • No matter how good the 3D school is, you need to work your ass off. If you only do the assigned work, leave at 3 pm and party all night, you will be in a tough spot.
  • Going to school does not guarantee you a job, no matter what the school might tell you.
  • If you pick a bad school, the teachers might not teach you anything useful, or worst case, teach you outdated or bad techniques, doing more harm than good.
  • The financial cost of going to school can be between Cheap, Acceptable, Expensive and WHAT-THE-ACTUAL-FUCK.
  • Getting a Bachelor or Masters can be very useful when it comes to getting a visa in a foreign country. That said, most employers will not care about your degree.

Which School?

It’s really important that you have an idea of what you want to do before choosing the school. I don’t mean that you figure out that you  want to specifically be a lighter, compositor, generalist, modeler, etc. The point I’m making here is that you should figure out which direction you’re going for.  If you want to do animation, you should probably go to a specialist school focusing only on animation. Want to be a concept artist? Doing a course focusing on technical 3D isn’t necessarily going to be the best choice. Maybe a fine art and illustration course is better? I've seen a lot of people attend character animation courses when they want to work with more technical 3D. While there's nothing wrong with studying character animation, it sure won't give you a job in FX or compositing. The reason you don't want to just put your finger in the air and see which way the wind blows is discussed in the next paragraph: Money. Some people can afford to try out different directions in their lives when it comes to schools, but they are being outnumbered by those who can't. You don't want to get $50,000 in debt without knowing whether you'll enjoy what you're studying or not. 

The Dark Side of Going to a 3D School - Tuition fees:

There’s a dark side about schools which nobody talks about. Let’s break the silence: Money. Going to school can be an extremely expensive decision. In the UK, every public university costs £9,000 ($13,000) a year to attend. That’s almost £30,000 ($43,000) for three years, in just tuition fees. Other schools are $40,000  a year, excluding housing. The more expensive schools can cost you $150,000 and beyond to attend. Unless you’re from an affluent family, this is a cost which will almost never be worth it; you’ll be paying down your student loans for decades, even with a high salary. If you live in a city like London, you will be 20,000 in debt at least for every year you attend a Univeristy. cash-money-1520773-640x480Look at all this cash money. That's a lot of dollaroos.

OK - maybe you knew schools were expensive! Here’s what nobody tells you, though: The entire school experience could be wasted if you go to a mediocre school, and boy, are there a lot of those. Imagine being more than £50,000 ($70,000) in debt and not having a single marketable skill. I’ve seen this happen time and time again.

The scenario is easy enough to follow: You’ve always done pretty well at school by simply doing the assigned school work, with the occasional homework. After finding a nearby university with decent online ratings, you’ve decided to enroll. As you start your education, you know literally nothing about 3D; you cannot pick a good 3D teacher from a bad one and you have no way to evaluate the quality of the school. In your case, you got unlucky and your teacher is mediocre or maybe damned right bad. Perhaps you suspect something isn’t as it should be, but you still don’t really know. You’re not worried, though - your work is still in the top 5 in your class so you should be fine. Right? After 2 years you’re ⅔ done with your education and you’re already £30,000 in debt. At this point, you start to plan your portfolio out and in your research, you figure out what the level for an entry level position is like and you experience the most uncomfortable feeling in the world - like somebody just punched you in your gut. Not only is the level significantly higher than what you expected, you’re literally years of hard work away from achieving it. Panic Mode Engaged. Where do you go from here, apart from buying FlippedNormals tutorials, obviously? The answer is an uncomfortable one: I have absolutely no idea. 

This is a very common scenario - one I’ve seen far too many times. While there are no real numbers on how many people get relevant 3D jobs after attending schools (not any which are reliable anyway), it’s safe to assume that this story is the same for a significant amount of people. People are enrolling in expensive and mediocre schools, blindly trusting that the university will take care of them and prepare them for a job.

Let me make this point abundantly clear: Going to a 3D school can be disastrous for your career and future personal life. Getting into a situation where you’re £60,000 in debt before your career has started WITHOUT any marketable skills is insane.

Senior modeller at ILM, Maximilian Vogt, has this to say about attending an expensive school. Max attended Vancouver Film School, which is around $40,000 a year.

"It is worth it - but only if you bust your ass 14 hours a day. You pay a lot of money, but beeing surrounded by driven people, decent teachers and a whole lot of time dedicated to honeing your skills can be a worthwhile experience.

If you are super disciplined and know exactly what you want, do online courses instead."

Your Own Effort

As with the example listed above, it’s easy to assume that getting a job doing 3D is similar to getting a job in any other field. There are jobs out there where going to university, attending the course and getting good grades will leave you with a pretty good chance of getting a job.

This is not one of those fields.

A great video on how to stay motivated by the fantastic Bobby Chiu


If you want to excel and have a good chance of landing a job, you’ll simply have to put in a lot of work outside of the mandatory school hours. Every single artist I know who’s got a good job after going to school has worked their butt off for years. Mind you, I’m not saying you have to spend 24/7 on school work. In fact, I’d highly recommend that you are social and make friends too, but you still need to keep the intensity up and be disciplined. This is, of course, the balance which can be extremely hard to find: How much do you work and how much do you socialize? Both are important and this is a balance you’re going to have to find yourself.

Grades & Degrees

Very few employers will care even the slightest about your grades or degree. The most important key to getting a good job in 3D is a solid showreel. Getting an A might feel good, but it literally won’t matter compared to a solid reel. I've had a fair few interviews for various VFX jobs and the topic of grades haven't been brought up once. 

A degree is another matter, though. While the employer won't care much per se, it can prove to be rather useful if you're applying for a visa in a foreign country.  Make no mistake, though: A good portfolio/showreel is king when it comes to getting a job in 3D.

kim-strandli-reachingformonoceros-final-02-compressedLovely student work by Kim Strandlli - ArtStation

One of the key points regarding going to school and getting a degree is that getting a working permit in a foreign country can get a lot easier. If you're interested in working in, for instance, the US, it would be really hard to get a visa without a degree. Keep in mind that you need to attend a school with a certified Bachelor/Master program in order to get a degree. Research this before deciding on a university. A lot of the schools listed below are simply offering one-year courses with a diploma. In most cases, this will not help in regards to acquiring a working permit.

Info regarding United States Visas

Info regarding United Kingdom Visas

Finance & Tuition Fees

In this section, we are looking at 3D schools from around the world and their respective costs. Keep in mind that the cost doesn’t necessarily represent quality. Let me just be clear, this isn’t an attempt at making any of the mentioned schools look bad; I'm purely listing the objective tuition fee found on their websites. A lot of the 3D schools mentioned below are truly excellent schools.

Please email me at 'mail at flippednormals dot com' if you find any inaccuracies in the list below. I'll do my best at keeping this list as up to date as I can.

United Kingdom

Escape Studios - 12 weeks - Source

  • 12 Week Intro Course - £10,500

Any UK University, such as University of Hertfordshire, Bournemouth, Ravensbourne, Teesside, etc - Source

£ 9,000 per year. Additional  costs such as materials and housing (which is significant in the UK , particularly London) are on top. For housing in London, you're looking at a minimum of 600-700 a month.

Norway

Idefagskolen - NOK 106,000 ($13,000) per year - Source

Noroff - NOK 110,000 ($13,200) per year -  Source

Public Universities and Colleges are free.

Germany

Filmakademie - 4 years - € 140 Service Fee per semester  - € 1120  for 4 years - for EU for EU/EEA citizens - Source 

Denmark

TrueMax - 3 years -  Source

Total: DKK  330,000 - $50,000 

Per Year: DKK  110,000 - $16,600

The Animation Workshop 3,5 years - Source

Total: DKK 79,200 - $11,000  for EU/EEA citizens. EUR 48,700 DKK 360,000- $ 55,000 for non-EU/EEA citizens. 

Per Year: DKK  26,400 - $4,000 for EU/EEA citizens.  EUR 15,000 - DKK 110,000 - $ 17,000 for non-EU/EEA citizens.

United States

Ringling College of Art and Design - 4 years - Source 

Total: $234,996 - including costs of living, supplies, etc

Per Year - $40,000 per year - $58,000 including accommodation and living expenses.

Gnomon School of Visual EffectsEntertainment Design & Digital Production - 3 years - Source 

Total: $89,000/$160,000 including costs of living, supplies, etc.

Per year: $29,600/$53,000 including costs of living, supplies, etc.

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) - 4 years - Source

Total: $144,000 (without living expenses)

Per Year: $36,045 (without living expenses)

Dave School - 1 Year - Source

Per Year: $33,500

Full Sail
   3-5 semesters - Source

3 semesters - $31-35,000

5 semesters - $ 75,000 semesters

CalArts - 4 years - Source

Total: $180,000

Per Year: $45,030 in tuition fees (no living expenses)

Canada

Vancouver Film School - 1 year- Source

Per Year - CAD$ 53,250 - USD$ 41,000

Think Tank - 1 year - Source

CAD$ 36,000 - $39,000/USD$  28,000 - 30,000 (depending if you're a national or an international student)

Red Flags

Before you chose a 3D school, you should look out for the following red flags. As 3D is a very popular field these days, a lot of people are making a significant amount of money on students. They will lure you into their school without caring about your well-being or your financial future. This is what they in martial arts call a ‘McDojo’ - it’s a place which cares far more about getting students through their program than the quality of the courses.

Again, some of these points might not be the result of a cynical overlord with a monocle and an evil lair - don’t dismiss a school purely based on this. These are just general red flags which might prove to be useful; in essence, just something you need to keep your eyes out for.

  • “80/90 percent placement rate!”

If anyone is claiming that a huge number of their students are getting hired right out of school, particularly for some of the shorter courses (3-12 months), they are either lying or stretching the definition of ‘hired’ pretty far. There is literally no way that nearly everyone from specific school will get hired. The only option is the school has a collaboration with a VFX facility which uses graduates as cannon fodder: they’ll be hired to do low-level tasks, such as roto, matchmove, render-farm management, running, etc. If a school is claiming to have such a high placement rate, make sure they can prove it, using readily accessible data. If you have small classes (10-15 people), it's theoretically possible to get this high placement rate for a 3 year long course, but be extremely skeptical of such a claim; Make sure the claim is backed up! 

  • “Students have gone on to studios such as ILM, Weta, PIXAR, etc!”

While this claim is probably true, it does not mean anything when it comes to the quality of the school. If a university has been around for long enough with a huge number of students passing through, it’s inevitable that a select few will end up at the top studios. Keep in mind that just because somebody went to School X then to PIXAR, doesn’t mean that school X caused them to go to PIXAR. Most likely it’s hard work and dedication after they graduated which lead them to their current positions. Correlation does not imply causation.


  • Bad/nonexistent student work

If you’re aiming to become a good 3D artist, you should attend a 3D school which produces, well, good 3D art. If a school sounds solid based on the written description, I’d be very interested in checking out the student work. The work produced by the students might be one of the best indications of the quality of the school - also as to the work you’ll be doing yourself. I’d highly recommend that you check out the student work before deciding on a school. I would say that not having any student work available, or only displaying mediocre pieces, is a huge red flag.

  • Bad-mouthed on forums

Before attending a 3D school, I’d highly recommend getting a second opinion on it from current or former students. Getting onto relevant CG forums, such as CGSociety, can be rather useful in getting honest information about the school or specific course you’re looking at. If the school’s website makes amazing claims, but people are trashing it online, that’s a big red flag that something isn’t right. Remember, this is a huge financial decision and you want to spend more time on researching the school than you are at reading reviews for the latest video game or smartphone.

  • From Zero to Hero in X months!

You cannot, I repeat, you cannot go from not knowing anything about 3D and art to getting a job in the field after 3 months. I’ve seen only a few people who’s picked up 3D in 4-5 months and got jobs in the field, but they all have solid foundations in art before they ever touched Maya or ZBrush. Like any skill, becoming solid and good requires a lot hours. If you attend one of the ‘Accelerated’ courses, you will get a foundation only. Please be extremely wary before spending 10,000 +++ USD on a 3-4 months course. If you believe that you can walk right into a job afterwards, you'll be in for a tough realization. It’s like believing you can go from being unfit to being a professional athlete in just a few months - IT CANNOT BE DONE.

EvilBizEvery time you ignore a red flag, this evil business man can deadlifts 5 kg more. He can currently lift a Boeing 373. 

Schools can be amazing!

So far, this article can be interpreted as if I hate schools and that I think they are all frauds. It couldn't be further from the truth! If we put aside the financial aspect, attending a good school can be a fantastic choice. You’ll get exposed to a whole new set of people and you’ll learn a lot - more than you can possibly learn by yourself. A good teacher can accelerate your learning manifold and can prove to be a valuable mentor. During my three years at The Animation Workshop, I had some truly fantastic teachers who challenged me as an artist and as a person. Some of them have grown to become valued friends over the years.

A good 3D school can help tremendously when it comes to you getting a job as well. Their network is beyond anything you can ever dream to achieve. They probably have solid contacts in a lot of major studios, as well as smaller ones. We’ll get far more in-depth regarding networking in our networking-article, but in short, getting your portfolio to the right people can increase your chances of getting hired quite significantly. My career has grown a lot due to my work ending up in the right hands, bypassing the bureaucracy. 

deskSchools can be awesome. Here's an unrelated photo of a desk.

Let's say that you want to be a modeller in VFX and you’re attending a good school - chances are that the school will know somebody on the inside of one of the major studios, which could really help you. Even if they aren’t the person hiring or have no influence over the hiring process, they could still provide you with valuable feedback.
Counselling can also be a really valuable resource which a good school will offer. As you’re starting out, the world of 3D is huge and scary. Having a good counsellor can help you figure out in what direction you should go. Not everyone should be in a big studio - maybe you’re a far better fit for a generalist role in a smaller studio? None of the disciplines (modelling, texturing, lighting, generalist, etc.) are better than the others; it’s all about what fits you.

Networking

Networking is one of the key skills which will ultimately help land you a job in any creative field. While networking isn't required, you're taking a serious shortcut to getting a job. By attending a good school, you'll be surrounded by creative and inspiring students, who will push you further than you can ever do yourself. Maybe even more importantly, they will provide you with a solid network of contacts. While you're in school, your classmates may not be the most useful contacts to have, as you're all mostly on the same page. However, the moment university is over, you'll start to spread all over the world and within a few years, you'll have contacts in most large places around the world. I've seen this happen time and time again where students get hired at a studio and over the next six months, several of their friends joins the studio due to recommendations from their friends from school.

This is true regardless of which field you're in, be it animation, VFX, commercials, engineering or finance. Networking is an essential tool in getting a job and going to school is a fantastic opportunity to grow your network. A fun side effect of networking, is that you find that you suddenly have friends living all over the world. I've personally met up with friends in Iceland, Prague, London, San Francisco and San Diego over the last years due to networking. There is a life outside CG (it's a harsh truth, I know), and having friends in cities around the world is amazing. When it comes down to it, it's not so much about networking, but rather about building friendships.

The Animation Workshop (TAW)

One of the best 3D schools out there is The Animation Workshop in Denmark. The reason I'm dedicating a section to TAW as opposed to a lot of the other amazing schools, is simply that I know the school really well and it's a hidden gem in a lot of ways. When I was looking at schools in 2010-2011, I was immediately drawn to a lot of the bigger and more expensive VFX schools out there, mentioned above. I discovered TAW by pure chance, and more people deserve to know about it.

The school is located in the tiny city of Viborg, which has a staggering population of 35,000 people. It's an adorable and quiet city. The Animation Workshop has only a couple of hundred students, creating a very tight-knit community, something you will never see in the bigger schools, some having tens of thousands of students.

Teachers

Nearly all the teachers are hired professionals, with a solid and up-to-date understanding of the field they are teaching. Most teachers stay for 1-4 weeks. I've personally been teaching their Introduction to Maya course, so I can definitely say that their teachers are great. And handsome. During my 3 years in Viborg, we had some truly amazing teachers, some from the very top studios in the world, including Weta, Disney and Pixar. As each class only contains 25 students, it's easy to develop a more personal relationship with the teacher, which can be an excellent networking opportunity later on. I've personally worked side by side with former teachers of mine once I got into the VFX industry in London.

Backwater Gospel - One of my favorite shorts to come out of TAW.

Admission
Unlike a lot of 3D schools out there, there is a strict admission process which places emphasis on skills and social abilities. Your work needs to be of a high standard, but just as important, you need to fit into the culture. Each course has a different admission test, but they all have in common: you need to provide an elaborate portfolio compiled specifically for the admission, which must contain a specific set of drawings. You'll have a hard time getting in without any drawing skills. Once your portfolio has been accepted, you need to go through an admission test, as well as a 30-minute interview. In short, getting in is hard, which in the end means that you get classes compiled of talented and motivated students.

You can read more about the admission process here

Courses
There are three lines at the school:

Computer Graphic Art
CGA is a 7-semester long line where you get a solid introduction to the entire CG pipeline, including concepting, modelling, texturing, rigging, lighting and compositing. This is the course I attended and it's awesome.

Character Animation
The Character Animation course focuses on exactly that: 7 semesters of solid character animation. If you have a strong interest in animation (and only animation) this is one of the best ways to become an amazing animator. It focuses pretty much exclusively on animation, so if you want to learn the rest of the 3D pipeline, this isn't for you.

Graphical Storytelling
This is a relatively new line where you get a bachelor in graphical storytelling, essentially how to make graphical novels. 8 semesters.

3d Schools - Are they worth it: Conclusion

With all this said, would I recommend you to a university or college? In short: Hell yes. It's an amazing time  of your life where you can learn for 12 hours a day, make new friends, party until dawn and generally enjoy life. I would easily choose to attend university again if I could, regardless of what online tutorials I'd come across. There is more to life than getting your skills up to an acceptable level - having fun, making friends and creating yourself as a person is equally important. Just promise me that you do your research before spending a penny on schools; an uninformed decision can be detrimental to your future as you can acuminate debt which may follow you for the rest of your life.

Find a 3D school, research it thoroughly, talk to teachers and students, make sure it's affordable - then spend the next four years having the best time of your life.

Author Henning Sanden

Henning is a London based 3D artist currently working at Double Negative as a character modeller and texture artist. He has worked on film such as Batman V Superman, Ghostbusters and Pirates of the Caribbean.

More posts by Henning Sanden