OUR MISSION: to provide the most personal and fulfilling learning experience on
-Animation Mentor Mission Statement
Technology for virtual learning (E-learning) over the internet has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. Corporate America alone has been spending over 5 billion dollars a year on E-learning, not to mention the tremendous growth in virtual learning in colleges and trade schools all over the world. The benefits are obvious: low overhead, no physical classroom, easier to adjust to varied learning rates, more focused one on one teaching and 24/7 availability of classrooms/course-ware are just a few.
This massive growth in E-learning has also come at a time when the computer graphics and video game industries are experiencing enormous success and popularity. There are so many people who want to work as animators, modelers, special effects artists and directors that the need for quality training outside of the traditional 4-year college program (which often lags behind current industry developments) is huge. Add to this pressing need for up-to-date, quality animation training, the desire by established CG artists to give back to those who are entering the business for the first time and you have Animation Mentor, a company that provides an 18-month professional-level virtual training course via the internet and has been placing their graduating students in companies like Pixar, Weta Digital and Disney Animation Studios.
Animation Mentor, more than any other virtual learning company I've come across, has created a unique virtual-learning experience through their commitment to the mentor system and a desire to teach their students "the art in animation," which is another way of saying that they want to teach practical, working skills in animation. Skills that can immediately apply to the modern production environment.
I was fortunate to meet with Carlos Baena, co-founder of Animation Mentor and working animator at Pixar Studios, at the recent SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver, BC, and learned a good deal about why Animation Mentor has been so successful over the 6 years since the company was founded. They promise the "most personal, fulfilling learning experience on the planet." And from what I've seen, they've certainly delivered on that promise with a growing professional staff, over a thousand students from 86 countries around the world enrolled in their program, and a high rate of success in helping their graduating students get jobs with professional production companies. In addition, Animation Mentor has received awards for their learning program from the US Distance Learning Association and others, for their innovative techniques in the teaching/learning methods that are part of the Animation Mentor program.
Rather than writing an article on Animation Mentor itself (their excellent website lays the entire company and training program out beautifully), I thought it would be interesting to talk with one of the animation program's graduates and to understand this unique learning experience from the point of view of someone who has gone through the Animation Mentor experience. At SIGGRAPH, I spoke with Ellen Pasternack, who later hooked me up with Steve Orsini, who completed the Animation Mentor "Character Animation" program in the fall of 2009 and attended the graduation ceremony in January of 2010. Steve has since gone on to work with ReelFX, where he works as a professional animator.
Steve was kind enough to answer my questions about himself and his experience as a student at Animation Mentor. You can see his 2011 demo reel and read more about him at his blog, steveorsini.blogspot.com. The well-designed Animation Mentor website offers complete information on their staff, courses and learning philosophy.
Ricky Grove: I've been told that you've just been hired at ReelFX? Congratulations, Steve! How did the job come about? What kind of work are you doing there?
Steve Orsini: Hey thanks! I applied to their apprenticeship and I guess I didn't screw up enough, so they kept me! We just finished up the second set of Looney Tune short films, like "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat" in front of Happy Feet Two, and the Ice Age Christmas special.
Ricky Grove: When you graduated from the Animation Mentor Program, what kind of career help did they offer you? Did you have a personal show reel for your work?
Steve Orsini: AM was very supportive of all of the alumni, and years later still offer up a direct line to recruiters in film studios. As long as you keep in contact with them, every so often career services will say, "Hey, I'm sending -insert big studio here-a stack of demo reels. Do you want us to include yours?" Another large part of the help was Becca Romeo's encouragement. This industry can be very rough, especially just starting out. AM is only as good as the effort you put in and certainly doesn't do magic for students who don't try their hardest. With that being said, there are times where the industry is slow, so a few "I know you can do its” from someone like Becca is just what you need. [Editor’s Note: Becca is AM's Career Services Manager].
I had a full demo reel ready to go, yes indeed. I didn't get the job at Reel FX until doing additional tests though. All the knowledge was in place, I just had to practice it more.
Ricky Grove: Steve, how did you become interested in computer graphics? Was it a film or person you met that influenced you in deciding to become an animation artist?
Steve Orsini: I wanted to be an animator after watching the TV show "Eye Drops" on G4Tech TV when I was in middle school. Seeing the tools were available to anyone interested me greatly. Also, I saw my big sister's friend pursue 3D animation in college; so his enthusiasm was a huge motivator in my career choice.
Ricky Grove: Where were you born, Steve? Were you always interested in art and animation? Did you have much experience in 3D before you applied to AM?
Steve Orsini: I was born in Ocean County, New Jersey. I've had an interest in art my whole life, but wasn't much of a draftsman and only liked to draw sometimes. I was more of a create-rollercoasters-formarbles-out-of-cardboard-paper-towel-rolls kind of kid. I had been messing around with Maya for maybe three years before starting AM, but a lot of time was spent on being confused by the technical parts. I certainly didn't know anything about animation from that tinkering in Maya. That I'm sure of.
Ricky Grove: Tell me about the process of applying to Animation Mentor. Did you find it difficult to finance the program?
Steve Orsini: I was looking to transfer to a different college and would often look at sites of animators I liked. More and more, I saw Animation Mentor would be on their resumes. And I noticed more often than not, the artist would go to a college for four years, work in customer service for a year, go to AM, then work at Blue Sky or someplace awesome. But I was still skeptical about online schools. I emailed Peter Starostin, who was at Blur at the time, asking about transferring to the Art Institute or going to AM. He basically said, after you go to AM, you won't need any other training. Confirmation from that same friend who got me introduced to Maya ("yes, do that," he told me). It was enough to get me to drop out of college and go to Animation Mentor.
Applying was a breeze. It was lots of open ended questions that gave them a feel for how passionate I was and my dedication level. Thankfully, my parents paid for a lot of it. At that time it was under 15K, I think.
Ricky Grove: How did you feel when you discovered you were accepted into the program?
Steve Orsini: I was ecstatic to find I had been accepted. I had been working longer in stores than I would wish on my worst enemy. It felt like a huge leap towards my dream.
Ricky Grove: What was your first week/month like at Animation Mentor?
Steve Orsini: The amount of resources was overwhelming. Just the community of students and alumni alone was priceless. The passion and excitement everyone around you had was exhilarating! You just couldn't help but learn more in a month here, than you would ever learn on your own in a year.
Ricky Grove: Can you describe your process of learning using the Animation Mentor program?
Steve Orsini: We started out with the bouncing ball, like any animation curriculum. Going through the 12 principles [Editor’s Note: the 12 Principles of Animation were developed by Disney artists] one at a time, we nailed down the understanding of each, nice and easy in the beginning. Every student has a "public review section" where they can post their work and get feedback anytime. The forums are very extensive as well. While I was there, every inch of the site had the purpose to help each of us learn and network.
Ricky Grove: Generally, how much time did you spend studying/practicing during an average week?
Steve Orsini: It is a full-time job. If you can afford to not work while going here, you will benefit greatly. Each week we're all given a one to three hour lecture to watch at our leisure, an assignment relevant to the lessons in said lecture, and an hour long Q&A video group chat with our mentors and classmates.
Ricky Grove: Did you find the program difficult?
Steve Orsini: Class 4 and 6 were real bruisers, but I had the old curriculum and a full-time job animating. Being surrounded by so many other people passionate about animation and seeing others succeed gave me the momentum and understanding of what was good enough to get me a job.
Ricky Grove: How long did you spend studying with Animation Mentor? What were some of the classes you took?
Steve Orsini: I completed AM's eighteen month program fall of 2009. That's six, twelve week classes ranging from basic foundations to short film production. But, currently, instead of short film, they go very in-depth with polish for the last two classes, which is the hardest part of animation in my own experience. Looking at students' work now, it was a good change.
Ricky Grove: Steve, did you feel you got your money's worth from the Animation Mentor program?
Steve Orsini: Animation Mentor was the best money I've ever spent in my whole life. I'm not exaggerating, nor was I told to say anything of the sort (and yeah, I know my parents paid for a lot [that's not the point]). I can confidently say if I had not left college to study with AM, I would be unemployed or working in retail frustrated with my lack of skill and overwhelmed with debt. Running the race alongside my college classmates who stayed in that learning institution, I have an almost three year jump on my career. For my situation and location, this was absolutely the best option.
Ricky Grove: What about the program do you feel works best?
Steve Orsini: The network of students and mentors is my favorite part. I'm working alongside three other former students and two of my former mentors at Reel FX, and a third works here remotely.
Ricky Grove: Tell me about your last month at AM. What were the lessons like compared to the beginning of the program? How did you feel about your work at the end?
Steve Orsini: The last month was difficult for me. I had kept changing my mind on my short film's story and we were in crunch at work. Looking back, I should have taken a leave at AM until I had the time to fully dedicate myself to my studies. Despite all that, by the end I felt fully equipped to get a job in film.
Back then, AM offered refresher courses, which is just retaking the new version of earlier classes, and now they have a creatures set of classes which looks pretty slick, I must admit. From how I started out to where I ended up was night and day. I couldn't be more happy with the program, but as an artist, of course, I'll never think my work is phenomenal. I will say it's better than it would ever be at my age and experience level without AM.
Ricky Grove: What did you do after graduation? Did you find work, or did you continue studying on your own?
Steve Orsini: I kept animating on my own, practicing the basics and doing new tests. I was hired mid-AM animating for games February 2009 and was hired as an apprentice at Reel FX in February 2011. And after the six month apprenticeship, I was brought on as Animator.
Ricky Grove: And finally, what were your own personal goals working with Animation Mentor? Did you achieve them?
Steve Orsini: My dream was to animate for film. I wanted to be a part of something really great. Lots of praying, and Animation Mentor helped me get there.
Ricky Grove: Can you tell us where we can find out more about you and your work, Steve?
Steve Orsini: My blog, used pretty much just for my reel, is steveorsini.blogspot.com
Ricky Grove: Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer so many questions. I appreciate it.
Steve Orsini: Thanks for choosing me!
My thanks to Steve Orsini and Animation Mentor for their help in putting this article/interview together. Special thanks (especially for her patience) go to Ellen Pasternack at Animation Mentor.
In addition to Steve’s Demo Reel, embedded in this article, I highly recommend watching the Animation Mentor Character Student Showcase for 2011, which is fantastic. You can catch it at their youtube channel here.
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity CG Industry News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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