• CGNetworks Product Review :: Animation Mentor Interview
    Learning Online with Animation Mentor
    Ali Tezel, CGTalk moderator, 30 June 2004

    Ali Tezel caught up with the guys from Animation Mentor, a new and ground-breaking online animation tuition environment, to find out more about this exciting new concept.

    The new online animation school, AnimationMentor.com was designed by animators for animators. The key creators of AnimationMentor.com are Bobby “Boom” Beck, Shawn Kelly, and Carlos Baena, who have worked as animators on such films as “Toy Story 2”, “Monster's Inc.”, “Finding Nemo”, “Star Wars” episodes I, II, and III, “Hulk” and the upcoming film “The Incredibles” to name a few. Offering one-year intensive online course at four skill levels, AnimationMentor.com involves students learning from online video classes, assignments, and personal video critiques and interaction from their dedicated professional mentors. Students enhance their learning via internal forums, chat rooms live video question and answer sessions and regular guest presentations from directors, supervisors and animations around the world.

    Ali: How did Animation
    Mentor start? Whose idea was it?

    Bobby: I always wanted to teach and I was very nervous teaching in front of people. Shawn offered for me to co-teach one of his classes and I was a little hesitant. To overcome this, I took this public speaking class and it got me super excited. On the way back from his class I was just thinking “Well there is all this stuff on the internet and all those people who want help with their animation – not just people locally, but people who physically don't have access to the resources.” So I kind of started developing an idea to teach online. Shortly after, I pitched it to Shawn and he was really excited about it. At the same time Carlos was already working on a DVD project teaching animation with video tutorials. He joined us and brought on board his ideas about video teaching. We put ideas together with our plans for online classes, discussed the different ways to teach, and it took off from there!

    Shawn: It certainly changed and evolved a lot over the last two years to become what it is today.

    Ali: Can you tell us about the development of the Animation Mentor online environment over the two years?

    Shawn: At first we started meeting frequently and discussed how we could make it as cool as possible. Bobby said “If we can go back in time and start all over again, how would we want to learn animation?” That became our mantra. From there we ironed out the business plan, the school plan, and the syllabus. Then we interviewed all these super talented animators from all over the world.

    Bobby: When we started, it was just going to be us teaching classes. We went one night to my house to teach and the camera broke. It was almost like a blessing. We had this whiteboard against the wall and it was just going to be us talking about animation and the TV next to us looking at examples and breaking down the animation. Just pretty much like one take and there you go. Anyway, Shawn had this awesome idea to edit the classes and make them in more of a documentary style; and what if we interviewed people and used that as supplementary material in our classes? What if we taught, not just by doing one take in our house, but going outside, say in a park, looking at somebody and breaking down the movement and stressing the importance of observation? We would be going through it frame by frame and draw over the frames, showing where the lines of motion are, where the path of action is, the arcs, and everything... So we realized this just got bigger and had so much potential! We put the brakes on our former ideas and started working on the bigger plan. Although we knew this was going to take much longer to accomplish, we thought in the end it would be so much better to learn in this way. It would be utilizing all those resources and bringing animation resources to people in a way that we felt had never been done before.

    Shawn Kelly and Ali Tezel (AKA Sheep Factory)
    Carlos Baena and Bobby “Boom” Beck

  • Animation Mentor Interview continued...



    Ali: What is Animation Mentor ?

    Carlos: Basically, Animation Mentor combines online video classes with professionals critiquing and providing feedback to students. Professional mentors work with a group of students they are assigned, among other things guiding them through the exercises set for their class level. On top of this, we're really trying to build a community that is just dedicated to animation. So far we have the forum, the chat facility, and all the usual stuff, but our online community is designed to be very dynamic and is unlike anything else I have seen on the net. Nevil and John, the guys from Theory7 did the design to combines video and everything else in a very dynamic online environment.

    Bobby: We really tried to make it as simple as possible for the user, so it's very easy to use and follow. On the inside, once you become a member, the whole environment is like a desktop display with icons on the side which open up new windows. To backtrack a bit, Animation Mentor to me is really about utilizing the animation community as a whole and bringing that knowledge to people in the best possible way we can.

    Shawn: Everything is really integrated inside the site, so each student has their own workspace – kind of like their homepage – where others can visit, check out their assignments, and give them feedback on a mini forum. We try to encourage everyone to check out each other's assignments and leave feedback. We will have featured students every couple of months who will be featured on the front page of the website.

    Carlos: To me the best part is the fact that it's online and everybody has access to it. I come from Spain and I didn't have access to this sort of training back home before. It's very exciting that now you don't have to come to United States to study animation.

    Ali: Do you supply everything required for the tuition? Will the students need to learn how to model and rig?

    Carlos: You want to animate? You just animate. Forget about complex models, forget about modeling and rigging. We give you the models that are totally ready to go. There are not going to be deformations or anything. The models will be as simple as it gets – just cylinders with the controls. Students are not even going to see the bones. We want everyone to start playing with movement and stop worrying about technicalities.

    AnimationMentor.com interface example

    Ali: How are the classes broken down? What will the students learn in each class?

    Shawn: There are going to be four skill levels, ranging from beginner to ultra super ninja. Levels A and B are aimed at beginners and levels C and D are definitely aimed towards professionals. Even though levels A and B are labeled towards attracting beginners, a professional will still find them quite useful. For example, I was editing the 40-minute “anticipation” class, and even though I knew it 100%, I learned a lot listening to all these talented animators talk about it and share their tips and tricks.

    Bobby: We always start off with an outline and we pitch that outline to each other to get some initial feedback. We decide how we are going to break down the points of each class. From there we go and film the class and it goes into editing. For example let's talk about the planning class. Planning your animation is such a confusing part and that's actually where most of the magic happens. So planning is broken down to five major areas. One of them is “observation and studying physical movement”. We go look at some live action footage and break it down frame by frame. We look at how and why everything is happening and from that we do some thumbnail drawings and look at how we do our key poses. At the end there is a review of the class. There are classes where we actually go through a shot, where we are actually animating shots, such as the “walk” class. In this class I go through the mechanics of the walk and then go on to animate a walk based on what we observed.

    Shawn: The classes are comprised of us talking about a topic, other animators talking about the same topic, examples from live action, things we observe, examples from stock footage, examples of animation, and examples of us animating and working on the computer. So all this stuff comes together to create the documentary-style teaching we are talking about.

  • Animation Mentor Interview continued...


    Ali: What is the relationship between the student and the mentor?

    Bobby: Students have a dedicated mentor for each level and each level consists of twelve classes. The student gets a chance to meet and really get familiar with their mentor through video feedback, chatting and asking questions. We want the mentors and students to grow together. One of the things that we are super excited about is the live video question and answer sessions. The ones answering questions at these sessions are not just us but animators all around the world. The sessions are set up so the students can ask their questions and the animators will answer those questions live. The sessions will be recorded so if students miss the live session, they can watch it later in their own time.

    We feel that a carefully planned and detailed ‘documentary-style’ teaching format using video lectures has a lot of potential to give people a bigger and wider view of animation. Our classes are not conducted with us in front of a white board for an hour talking about a specific topic in animation. They are carefully thought out classes with multiple points of view, references, case studies, walk-through animation exercises, footage breakdowns and a focus on looking at how to pull the best bits from reference and when to exaggerate those parts that could be pushed, etcetera.

    When teaching in a classroom environment I always feel I forget to say important things, or I might not have the best examples. In a classroom we certainly do not have time to actually sit down and show them how we go through our shots. Animation Mentor really gives students this type of learning experience. They don't just see a class one time like in a normal classroom. They can watch it as many times as they like within that given class session, which really helps make those points stick.

    Shawn: The students can receive more than one set of feedback as well. For example, they can work on one assignment, go back and work on it some more, then upload that with the new assignment so they get a critique on both.

    Ali: So you guys shot all the reference footage yourselves?

    Bobby: Originally, yes. We did get some stock footage, because there is footage of animals which we don't have access to. We contacted Dover Press, the company that publishes the Eadweard Muybridge books. They were kind enough to work out a license agreement with us to use Muybridge's works as supplemental material in our classes, which was great since his books are a great place to study what is happening within the anatomy of the human body. We started contacting all these different companies to see if they would donate things to our project for the sake of teaching animation and it really snowballed. Lots of comic artists and friends offered their help because they really believed in the project, and that also kept us motivated.

    Ali: Will mentors be able to check other students' work and leave critique?

    Bobby: Absolutely. It's really set up so each student and mentor can view everyone's work whether they are in level A or level D. They can just cruise around and see what other people are doing or see who is getting the top hits.

    Ali: Will there be a limit to the number of students accepted for enrollment?

    Bobby: We have a limit on the amount of students. We'll accept students on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. It's not really about shoving as many people as we can into this thing; it doesn't mean that to us. It's about quality education and we are super-dedicated to seeing students grow. That's also another reason why we have dedicated mentors, because you get the satisfaction of seeing your students grow. Students will have a new dedicated mentor with each new level. This also let's the student meet other mentors and make more connections and contacts.

    Shawn: There will be a waiting list and students will be able to enroll as others move on. We'll also be accepting new students in each quarter. One thing we know people want is the ability to work at ‘their own pace’. We've worked very hard to give our students options. Based on the feedback received we are now implementing options which we hope will fit with most people's needs.

    Ali: What classes are in level A?

    Carlos: In level A we focus on the foundation principles of animation. It's great for professionals, but even for somebody who has never done animation before and wants to see what it is all about. We go through the principles like the ‘bouncing ball, walks’ and when they become comfortable with the foundations they can move on to level B which is more about mechanics and full body physical animation. Level C and D consist of full-on acting. The class levels are a natural progression and really build off each other.

  • Animation Mentor Interview continued...


    Ali: Can you tell us a bit about the guest speakers. How is that aspect organized?

    Bobby : Having guest speakers gives us a chance to talk to some of the most reputable talent in the business today – people like Eric Goldberg with over thirty years of animation experience and directing. This is really a great way to bring the art of animation to the masses. Often times we think of animation as ‘tricks’ or ‘magic’, so this really gives us the opportunity to dig even deeper into these issues and let everyone learn from the very best sources.

    We have interviewed several people for this and it's just been a really big opportunity to learn from some of the masters. “Live Q & A” will be a video feature that lets people learn from professional animators by asking their questions ‘live’. These live sessions might be with one of us, one of our mentors, or other animators we admire.  Each guest speaker differs in that we have to do it on the professional's time frame and schedule so these will most likely stay as a video-edited format so people can watch them on their own time.

    We're looking to feature a new guest speaker every month.

    Ali: What software will be used by students to animate?
    Are the classes software-independent? Are the models available for all the major animation software out there?

    Shawn : One of the things we stress at AM is art over technology. We couldn't care less about what software people use as long as they are focusing on the art of animation. The vast majority of our classes, including tips and tricks, are software-independent. And while we do most of our ‘animated’ examples in Maya, the methods and ideas shown will apply to any animation package or medium. In fact, our students can create their assignments in whatever program or medium they like best! Whether they use Maya, clay, or a pencil doesn't matter to us, and hopefully we'll be critiquing work in all of the above.

    You want to focus on the art, not the tool – that's key to getting a job at a feature studio. Any studio can teach you the software in a couple weeks, but they'll first be looking for people who know the principles of animation like the back of their hand.

    As far as characters go, we may expand the selection in the future to include models designed for other software packages, but initially we'll probably only be offering Maya rigs. With Maya being so commonly used in studios these days, and the Personal Learning Edition available as a free download, it seemed like a natural fit. We've also talked to Maya, and any of our full-time students will be able to purchase Maya using the Student Discount!

    We're just trying to simplify everything as much as possible to make sure our students can focus 100% of their time on learning the art of character animation.

    Ali: Who are the animators and staff involved in animation mentor?

    Carlos : The people who created AM are Bobby Beck, Shawn Kelly and I, but we've had many, many collaborators and animators helping us with various aspects of the design, classes, interviews and so on. For example, animators Rick O'Connor and Delio Tramontozzi have really added a lot to the whole experience. We have also been working with an exceptional team from Theory7.com, Nevil Slade and John Harry, in England , who have been developing the website and creating the online tools to facilitate mentor critiques. We are ramping up our Mentor staff and can't say much about it at this time other than that we have some amazing animators from many of the major studios that are participating in the actual mentoring process. Full details of this will be on the main AnimationMentor.com site when we launch. We also have people working in other departments overseeing many other aspects for the launch of the School: Cecile Hokes, Kelli Hensley, Jon Donahue to name a few of the super-helpers.

    The launch of AnimationMentor.com is scheduled for the second half of 2004, and students can join at any time until seats are full.

    Related Links

    Animation Mentor
    Bobby “Boom” Beck's website
    Carlos Baena's website
    Eadweard Muybridge: Father of Motion Pictures
    Animation Mentor CGTalk Thread

    Interview by Ali Tezel (AKA Sheep Factory)
    Edited by Lisa Thurston
    All images by AnimationMentor.com

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