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Interview with CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX’s Director of Education and Co-Founder, Nicholas Boughen

Interview with CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX’s Director of Education and Co-Founder, Nicholas Boughen

I recently spent a few days in New Westminster at CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX and had an opportunity to sit down and chat with Nicholas Boughen, Co-Founder and Director of Education. Boughen has been a pioneer of the Vancouver visual effects community since 1995, is an Emmy and Gemini nominated digital artist and has been a VFX Supervisor for many years.

He began his digital career after 18 years in live theatre where he worked as a Technical Director, Facility Manager and Lighting & Scenic designer.  Having completed 28 films, 4 television series and over a hundred commercials, Nick is renowned as one of the world’s foremost experts in the art and science of computer generated lighting and shading.

With a goal to create the best visual effects school in the world, a few years ago, Nick gathered a faculty of industry veterans and leaders to help realize the vision of a new kind of training and has been releasing talent into the industry ever since.

How did you first get started working in visual effects back in 1995?

Well, I started learning 3D to support my first career as a theatrical scenic and lighting designer.  You see, previous to digital technology, scenic designers built their set models out of hot glue and foam-core board, hand painted them and presented the miniature for review to the director.  Lighting artists could not demonstrate their designs which were only blueprints until hung in the theatre.  When 3D technology became widely available, it was the first time in history that a designer could build, paint and light a set inside the theatre without setting foot in the theatre.  We were able to visualize how our designs would look months earlier than ever before.  This was very exciting to me and I rushed to embrace the technology.  I had some friends who had moved from theatre into visual effects.  One day I got a call asking if I’d like to help out on a tough deadline for a TV Movie.  Of course I jumped at the opportunity.  I worked late into the night after my day job for weeks to help deliver.  Within a few months I was working fulltime in the budding Vancouver VFX industry.

What are your top 3 favorite projects you’ve worked on over the years?

I’d have to say my favorite project of all was HBO’s Dead Like Me, for which I received an Emmy nomination.  It’s not the Emmy that makes it a favorite, though.  The great thing about DLM was the way I connected with the VFX Supervisor Robert Habros.  He’s a great guy with a solid vision and can clearly articulate what he would like to see.  But it’s more than that.  Bob and I seemed to see things the same, so that every time he came to my desk for a review, his response was either “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant” or “That’s not exactly what I meant, but it is better.  Let’s do that.”  As you can imagine, that kind of response makes a job really fun.  I was really bummed when the show was cancelled after two seasons.

The Morty the talking bison commercials for Manitoba Telephone Systems.  This commercial contract spanned nine years and we did at least a hundred of them.  Each one was different.  Some were really out there. (Imagine doing bison hair under water and held down by a snorkeling mask).  During this contract, I moved from digital artist to VFX Supervisor, so it was a real learning experience.  But the really fun part was the ad agency and clients.  The great thing about commercials is that, in my experience anyway, everyone is super professional.  They all know what they need, how to do their jobs and what the deadline is.  There’s no nonsense, few egos and princesses and even less time.  So we just got the job done efficiently, worked together toward a common goal and enjoyed the process.  Also I got to go to some amazing places like Calgary and Winnipeg.  ;)  Commercials in general are my favorite kind of project.  Over the course of my career as a commercial vfx supervisor, I traveled to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Johannesburg, London, Toronto, Miami, Los Angeles and the aforementioned Calgary and Winnipeg, which is always a fun adventure.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  Garfield 2 belongs in this list, not because it was fun, it definitely was not, but because it was my first job CG Supervising a major Hollywood title.  This project stretched me far beyond my own perceived limitations, technically, physically and mentally.  I learned about dealing with Hollywood clients, handling a stressed out crew, keeping production moving forward when my managers were running around with their hair on fire and standing firm on processes I knew worked when others doubted.    I learned to value and understand Rudyard Kipling’s advice in his poem “If”.   It took me many years of reflection to learn all the lessons Garfield 2 had to teach.  During those years, I thought that, although we had delivered a decent project, it was the worst thing to happen in my career, I recognize now that those experiences strongly shaped my current production philosophy and enabled me to clearly see many better ways.  During Garfield 2, I also formed some of the most enduring friendships I still have today.  That’s what happens in the battle trenches.

What has changed the most in the industry since you first got started?

I would have to say the sheer scale of a VFX project.  Back in the old days, you had maybe a dozen artists in a dark room, each one assigned whole shots from start to finish rather than being one member of a big department and handling only one aspect of a shot.

Being bigger has its upsides and downsides.  Departmentalization means greater specialty.  An assembly-line approach means more efficiency.  These are good for the health of a company.  But it also means artists tend to develop a more myopic view of production and are less likely to make decisions based on the needs of other departments.   I believe there is a point of diminished returns where specialists actually become what we call “disabled artists”.  They work in a pipeline that is so automated, in a department that is so specialized that eventually they really can’t do anything else, and they are disconnected from the larger picture.   We once hired a veteran lighting artist from a very major California studio.  This artist had the most amazing lighting reel we had ever seen.  When the artist sat down to work and asked “Where is the lighting rig?” we got nervous and said “Well you have to add your lights.”  When the artist replied “Oh….how do I add lights?” we knew we had a real problem.  It then came to light that this artist had spent the last ten years receiving scene files already set up for lighting by others and only knew how to aim a light and to change the colour and intensity of the light, nothing more.  Of course this is a worst example of the disabled artist, but the larger the studio, the more likely it is to occur.  In today’s industry, which is mostly smaller studios, an artist needs to be flexible and capable across multiple departments.

What is a normal work week like for you?

Normal.  What’s normal?  Each day I wake up between 6am and 7:30am.  I leave the house between 7am and usually 9:30am.  I teach classes three days a week and mentor the other two, so I spend copious hours in the team rooms.  It’s never the same on any given day.  I have a stack of items in my to do list daily that may include in person, telephone or Skype interviews with candidates (potential students), meetings with other businesses, politicians or community leaders (we’re pretty involved in the local community), school tours, events or speaking engagements.  Of course there is always equipment and building maintenance to be taken care of, software updates, render farm management camera gear repairs and so forth.

I spend a fair amount of time weekly doing software research.  I work with a number of software developers to resolve problems we encounter in production, just the same as we do in production studios. (I believe it’s an essential responsibility of a professional to engage in the development of their tools.  If you don’t at least contribute, you have little excuse to complain about the tools.)

I am always working on curriculum development for growth and improvement.  It is important for us to keep on top of the latest tech.

My work day may end any time between maybe 4pm and 11pm.  It’s pretty exciting (and rare) when I find myself at loose ends after a mere 8 hour day.  Even when I’m home I am often on my laptop working.  The work week often carries into the weekend and sometimes right through it.  It requires some serious stamina, but it is worth it every time I send a new batch of graduates out into my industry.

What are some of your hobbies away from the computer?

Well, it’s important to keep active and healthy, but I can’t stand going to a gym and running a treadmill or riding a stationary bike.  I’d rather pull out my own fingernails.  So several years ago I took up martial arts with my daughter.  We graduated to our first degree black belt in WTTU Taekwondo and then moved on to Karate Kickboxing where we are now about 2/3 of the way to black belt.  It’s definitely extremely demanding physically and requires some serious perseverance, especially on those rainy days when you’re tired from the work week and cozy at home, but perseverance is the key.  We measure ourselves, not by going on the days when we feel great, but on the days we feel worst.  We are constantly learning that our limits are beyond what we thought they were.  I know of no better way to measure our own character than the study and practice of martial arts which is as much life philosophy as it is spinning hook kicks and upper cuts.

I’m also a pretty rabid aviation nut.  I hold a private pilot license and am in the process of building my own Hatz Classic Biplane.  People usually have one of two reactions when they find out I’m building an airplane.  One is “You’re crazy.  The duct tape will fly apart and you’ll kill yourself!”  The other is “Awesome, when do we go?”

I’ve learned so many amazing things through the process of building this aircraft from scratch.  But the most important thing I’ve learned is patience.  I’ve learned that a thoughtful, methodical approach will get me done more accurately and more quickly (and less expensively) than rushing.  And I’ve learned that there is a time to put down the tools and walk away for the day. (like when I incorrectly drill a $100 piece of aircraft grade sitka spruce creating kindling rather than a wing spar.)

I also love reading classic literature.  Lately I found an old box of my Mom’s favorite books including Moby Dick, a bunch of Steinbeck, Jules Verne, Andres Dumas and others.  I used to read mainly science fiction and Sherlock Holmes.  There’s a much bigger world of literature out there.  If you’re not reading it, you’re missing out, IMO.

You’ve been teaching for years. Why start your own school?

Warning: Some of this is going to sound “salesey”.

Due to my design and project/facility management background, I became a lead and then CG Supervisor pretty early in my digital career.  One of the jobs of a supervisor is to review reels for recruitment.  We used to get stacks of reels (DVDs in those days) from the local schools and almost all of them were embarrassingly bad.  I saw a real neglect for decent lighting, so I packaged up what I knew from my theatrical lighting career, mixed it with what I had learned to date about my terrible CG lighting tools and sent it out into the world in an attempt to help in the form of my first published book.  It didn’t help much.  So I went out to local schools to teach classes, hoping to reap the rewards of my own teaching by hiring my own grads.  This also did not help so much, except I did identify and hire two exceptionally talented gentlemen over the course of a few years.

We had little choice but to hire what we called “the best of the worst” from local schools just to fill up our teams.  We created in-house training systems and buddy systems to get these green artists up to a speed that they could begin contributing.  It cost us maybe 20-30 thousand dollars to get a junior to a point they could actually start earning their pay.  Then, around 2004, the digital industry globalized massively, driving down VFX profit margins.   Tons of companies fell in that shift.  All our training budgets were axed.  We put a moratorium on hiring inexperienced people.  In other words, no more graduates.

So we went out to a bunch of local schools, showed them our training systems, offered to help develop a curriculum that would actually generate production-ready artists and TDs and asked them to change.

The response from private institutions was generally “Our seats are full, there’s no need to change.”  And the public school response was more like “Well that sounds like a good idea.  It would take probably ten years to develop a new curriculum.  And anyway, we are academic and that’s how we do things.”

You see, these schools are mostly stuck in the letter grade, academic approach to training.  You take a list of courses.  In each course, you do some assignments, maybe write some exams and attend enough classes to pass. (stop me if you’ve heard this one) If you get a passing grade on enough courses, you get a credential.  This system may be fine for academic studies like history, philosophy, literature and so forth, but it just doesn’t work for job skills.  Job skills need to be taught by doing the job with leaders who know how to do the job because they’ve done it for years.  Furthermore, employers know a credential and a transcript may or may not indicate knowledge, so it’s irrelevant.

Disappointed by the response from local digital media schools and programs, we theorized that the only way to support our industry was to start a new kind of training program that generated the kind of people we actually need in industry; people with production experience--people who know how the process works.  The results have been dramatic.   When candidates find out that nearly all of our grads immediately find work in their field, they recognize there’s something different going on here. 

If you think about it for a minute, our approach is a no brainer.  The question we most often get asked is “Why doesn’t everybody do it this way?”

What are some of the projects your grads have worked on recently?

Well I just heard from a few grads working on projects like Beauty and the Beast, Fate of the Furious, Furious 8, The Good Place, Power Rangers, The Dark Tower, VanHelsing, Adventures of Puss in Boots, A Series of Unfortunate Events and more.  They work at studios like Digital Domain, Double Negative, Method Studios, Encore, GoldTooth, Artifex, Bardel and many others.

What advice would you give someone in the industry looking to transition to teaching?

Just Do It.  But take some teaching training first.  Teaching has two great benefits.  The first is the sharing of your knowledge and experience to the next generation.  It feels pretty good to contribute to the future of our industry in this way.  The second, and arguably the best, is that you will become far better at your craft.  There is no better way to level up than to have to teach your skills and techniques to others.  Teaching forces you to think about your own work in a more granular way.  Things that you do without thinking will have to be thought through and justified.  Often this opens up avenues you never considered, sharpens your knowledge of your own tools and leads you to innovative uses for your tools.  Any decent employer will encourage you to teach.  They know they will get back a better employee.  Also it is hugely gratifying to pass your skills along to others who are as eager and excited as you once were, you jaded, cynical old monkey.  

What do you look for in a potential student at CG Masters?

That’s easy--integrity, perseverance, passion and curiosity, in that order.  We specifically seek out exceptional candidates to add to our teams.  Having a great art portfolio is a bonus, but remember there are a lot of technical jobs too.

CGMasters has an interesting tagline; Skills not Grades. Can you elaborate on that message?

Everybody knows that a school transcript filled with ‘A’ grades might mean that the student learned a lot, or that she was well trained.  But it also might mean the student skated by and bribed the instructor or cheated on exams and assignments.  In other words, everybody, including industry recruiters, knows that a transcript of letter grades is unreliable, therefore meaningless.  If grades are meaningless, why use them? 

When we established CG Masters, we wanted an evaluation system that was actually meaningful, so we instituted a skills assessment system instead.  In any given class, a student has a number of training outcomes.  For example, in compositing class, rotoscoping is one of the outcomes.  In a grade-based system, a student will submit their roto for grading and receive a letter grade.  Then the class will move on to the next topic.  But what if the letter grade is a C+?  A client will never accept C+ work, but the student isn’t given an opportunity to make it better.  Too bad. 

With skills assessments, when a student submits a roto for review, it is reviewed by a roto expert and, unless it is good enough for production, the artist is given notes and takes another run at it, just like in real production.  The student will submit it as many times as needed to get it to a professional level, at which point the instructor will sign off on that outcome and the student will have a finished work for the reel as evidence that they possess the skill of rotoscoping.  Pretty simple and obvious when you think about it.

How do you decide what is covered in the curriculum at the school?

The school curriculum is based solely on the needs of industry and on the likelihood of our graduates to get jobs.  For example, we don’t run a character design class or a concept art class because someone new to the industry is extremely unlikely to get a job in either of those fields.  They are intermediate or senior positions in most cases.  The curriculum is also already jam-packed with important topics that every cg artist should know, like photography, observational drawing and scripting.

What software do you currently teach at the school?

The usual suspects found most often in industry: Maya, Houdini, Modo, Nuke, Mudbox, Mari, Python, Photoshop, UVLayout, Syntheyes, Substance Painter.  We also use FTrack for project/asset management and Royal Render on the farm.

For artists looking to break into the industry, would you recommend becoming a Specialist or a Generalist?

This is a very common question without a really simple answer.  If I were forced to give a simple answer it would be “Generalist” simply because a person with broader skills is easier to hire.  But the argument against generalist training is “Jack of all trades, master of none”.  You have to be pretty experienced to become a really good “true” generalist.  We make sure all our trainees have some experience in all disciplines, but we recommend they limit to 3 or 4 disciplines as they get further along in the program so they can get a really good handle on the skills and tools they’ll need.

The argument for specialist training kind of died out when so many of the huge studios collapsed with the globalization of the industry.  It’s fine to specialize in one discipline if you are in a giant company with giant departments.  But there are exponentially more medium and boutique companies than huge ones.  Smaller companies don’t have huge departments.  They need fewer people who are flexible enough to complete multiple different tasks.  This means there are far more jobs available for more broadly skilled workers.

If the artist is looking for assurances of employment, obviously the more skills he has the better.  But if the artist is super passionate about a single discipline, that’s also a good sign he’ll become proficient enough to work in that space.  We talk through all the options with our trainees as they work through the program.  We support them in whatever decision they finally take.

If you could only share one piece of advice for someone wanting to break into this industry what would it be?

Don’t give up.  Don’t listen to the false voices in your head that tell you “I can’t”.  They’re liars.  Perseverance is the only real quality needed for success in anything.

What’s your favorite all time movie and favorite game?

Aw dang it, I hate this question.  I guess my favorite genre would have to be sf.  But a favorite movie?  That’s impossible.   I could give you a list of 100 movies I would watch on a Sunday afternoon, if you like.  There are so many great movies for so many different reasons. 

My favorite game for the past few years has been Fallout—so much so that I forced my students to make a Fallout short film as one of the school VFX projects.  :D   I’ve been a die-hard Bethesda fan since Arena and even beta tested on Battlespire.  The only thing Bethesda needs to make Fallout truly epic, IMO, is add local coop VR.  Or even networked coop VR.  I would totally buy a second console and VR headsets to play that with my wife, who is also an avid gamer.  Like it’s not already tough enough tearing myself away.  But that might take a new console generation.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today.

Always a pleasure, William.

To find out more about CG-Masters Academy visit them online at: http://cg-masters.com/

 

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