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SIGGRAPH: Art School Or Trade School?

In this final write-up from Gamasutra's in-depth SIGGRAPH 2006 coverage, reporter Jill Duffy looks at a notable conundrum in the game and CG industries: 'art school or trade school?' - with a
Students on a path to a career in game development and those looking to work in computer graphics alike face a controversial educational choice: art school or trade school. The topic is equally relevant to employers, who are sometimes eager to hire entry-level candidates with proven skill sets, and sometimes looking for the creative talent that’s borne from studying fine arts and masterpieces—leaving software skills to be acquired later. At the annual Siggraph conference on computer graphics, held in Boston July 30-August 3, a panel of educators, all of whom have also worked in the arts, convened to discuss how choosing between arts school and trade school affects potential artists. Who or what is driving the trade school market, and what roles do the job market and hiring companies play in how students are educated? Experts, Debating Conundrums Represented on the rather large panel were Dug Ward of the University of California—Los Angeles’ Animation Workshop, graduate MFA program; Harry Mott, chair of digital media at Otis College of Art and Design; Pamela Hogarth of the Gnomon school in Los Angeles; Peter Bardazzi, who has taught at New York University, the TISH center for the arts, and the Fashion Institute of Technology; Peter Weishar of Savannah College of Art & Design; Larry Bafia from Vancouver Film School; Tom Bertino of Academy of Art University, San Francisco; and moderator Tad Leckman, new to Savannah College of Art & Design, formerly of the Academy of Art, San Francisco. The panelists agreed that a background in fine arts—specifically, learning to draw and learning to communicate concepts—are irreplacable skills. Some representatives from the more trade school-like institutions, say they even advise students to attend a liberal arts college for a few years before attending their schools. Says Harry Mott of Otis School of Art and Design, “I’ll teach you how to say something; liberal [arts] studies will teach you what to say.” Similarly, the professors on the panel say students will sometimes arrive at their colleges and admit that they “don’t know how to be creative” and are looking to learn things that classroom experience may not be able to teach. “From my point of view, artists educate themselves through the struggle of form and of content, and not necessarily getting it right with the software,” says Bardazzi. “The problem for all of us is to somehow educate an artist ... with a well-rounded education,” one that incorporates creativity, and not just 3D animation software training." Developing The Right Courses? Gnomon’s Hogarth finds the push and pull of curriculum coming from the outside as well, not just students. “Our instructors are all working professionals. Often they’re the ones developing the curriculum for our courses,” she says. “We keep our ears open about what the industry needs. We ask a lot. The industries that we serve, all of them are vocal.” Bertino says the same is true at the Academy of Art, San Francisco, due to the proximity of major industry players. “Studios and recruiters are right around the corner,” which gives his institution “moment to moment pulse readings” for what’s wanted in the industry, he said. “A lot of people believe there’s a path to what you need to learn to get into animation,” Bertino says, “but skills sets need to change. Conceptual aesthetics that go behind those pushing buttons—those are things you are going to be keeping your whole life long.” We Want The Right Education! Although the importance of liberal arts studies is somewhat indelible, the job market strongly affects why students often perceive these types of courses as being irrelevant. Specifically, there are two factors may be the cause: the loss of apprenticeships in most industries and the shift in mindset of students (American in particular) who demand to be treated not as students, but as paying customers, entitled to the services they want. On the job know-how, whether it was manual labor or just working knowledge of an industry’s day-to-day functions, used to be taught to entry-level employees by their employers or fellow co-workers. And while some industries, mostly union-based, still offer formal apprenticeships, it's much more common for businesses to not want to absorb the cost of that training, or at least reduce it by hiring semi-skilled people. Trade schools are something of a response to this shift in the job market, a fast track into the workforce. “One thing a trade school provides is the kind of direct learning” of skills and procedures that entry-level job candidates in CG or game development will be doing as soon as these students leave the academy, says SCAD’s Peter Weishar. Conclusion: Skills Matter Still, no matter what entry-level job descriptions say, what ultimately stands out is the applicant whose personality and portfolio stand out. That kind of talent cannot be taught in trade school or art school or traditional school, but probably can be honed in the latter two. A few other aspects of outstanding job candidates, say the panelists, are: the ability to solve problems, being able to truly look at their work or the work of others and assess it intelligently, an affable personality, and the ability to work well collaboratively. “The single most important thing we can teach them,” says Bertino of all art students, “is to be interested and inquire ... teach them how to think in a way that’s important to the whole.”

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