7 High School Electives To Prepare You For A Degree In VFX

The love of music and performance hit me at a very young age. So, when it came time to select my high school electives it was pretty clear what classes to choose and what extra curricular activities I wanted to be involved with. Band, choir, theatre, speech team, the fall and spring musicals were all somewhat obvious choices. However, with technology moving quicker than a cheetah on Red Bull the love and aspiration to become a VFX artist is being left in the dust at the high school level.

I’ve been to 100s of high schools with very few of them valuing computer animation, VFX and many other digital media classes either due to budget or simply because the board doesn’t understand that the term starving artist is something that should be taught in history class.

So what should a young aspiring artist with an interest in VFX do to prepare for a degree and career in VFX if their high school offers no animation, VFX or even film courses?

Last week I sat down with Chris Tedin who is the lead faculty of Animation at Tribeca Flashpoint College and has taught students who have gone on to become head animators, VFX artists and designers at places such as Disney, Pixar, The Mill and countless other companies that are highly regarded in this space.

Before we jump into the 7 high school electives that Chris recommends lets first understand what VFX is!

What is VFX?

VFX stands for Visual Effects. The simplest way to explain the difference between animation and VFX is to think of Finding Nemo vs. The Avengers. Finding Nemo is completely animated whereas The Avengers takes real-life film footage and either eliminates or adds digital elements such as explosions, the environment using green screen technology and pretty much anything that was not originally captured by the camera. So, since the majority of todays high schools do not teach VFX what electives would be helpful for a student with an interest in this discipline?

1. Graphic Design

You need to understand light, balance, color and composition. So any class that has the word design will help you. Most high schools will offer classes in Photoshop and Illustrator and will teach the basic skills needed for any type of design. Classes like this will help you find your artistic voice and lay the foundation to becoming a great VFX artist.

2. Web Design

Again, if the word design is in the name then you are probably on the right track. Web design helps train your eye for designing on a screen. Whether it be a computer or a smartphone screen, most sites will have elements of animation and VFX in them. This class will teach you about balance and where to lead the viewers eyes which are both important when working as a VFX artist.

3. Programming

Really!? This one surprised me too. However, Tedin mentioned that there are lots of jobs in the market today for artists who are also programmers. So if you are interested in both sides of this equation then embrace it. Chances are you would be highly sought after if you do. Programming is also all about problem solving which is a major component to becoming a VFX designer. You will be coming up with creative, out of the box solutions nearly every day on the job! How fun does that sound!?

4. Writing

Wait! What? How is writing going to help me become a VFX artist?

It’s all about storytelling and being in the mind of the storyteller.

Imagine being on set with a couple actors in front of a green-screen. It is your job to tell the story of what is happening on that green-screen. What are the actors seeing? What are they reacting to? The rest of the story in this scenario is the environment. When reading a story, what pictures do you see in your mind. This is more important than most people think but the story is everything. So even for the audio engineers, the director, the actors, the makeup artists and the costume designers they all have to understand the story they are collaborating to tell.

5. Film and Photography

Camera cuts and camera angles are key components when creating the VFX for a movie or TV. When reading a story and imagining the lead character on a boat in the ocean, for example, you may picture the camera swooping in from far away to land on a close up of the lead character’s face before panning down to the waves as they crash against the bow of the ship. When your the VFX artist for a big budget film with this type of shot you will probably be using a green-screen and adding the VFX later. So take your smartphone and begin taking pictures and shooting video.

You learn by doing so don’t you dare make an excuse that you don’t have a decent camera when the smartphone in your pocket has a better camera in it than the one they shot the original Star Wars with. 

6. Pottery/Ceramics

When digitally modeling you start with a virtual ball of clay. So when you learn to take actual clay and design a cup, for example, you get a literal hands-on experience of the service of the material you are working with. This analogous knowledge of pottery and ceramics parallels to that of digital modeling. Having that experience will do nothing but help you understand that you are modeling something that has an actual surface. An inner surface and an outer surface.

By understanding this reality you are better equipped to digitally recreate it. And in digital, the sky’s the limit!  

7.  Painting/Drawing

The biggest thing about this traditional medium is that you acquire a trained eye towards the way light bounces off of certain objects. Reflections and highlights are what give objects, people, cars, apples etc. the depth that we see. And just like pottery, the digital art tools mimic the traditional. So sign up for that drawing 101 class and learn what pencil is best for drawing shadows under an apple sitting on a desk with a lamp because the digital tools will be the same!

Show your work to others

If you want to become a great artist this is key. You must be willing to take criticism from others without taking anything personally. Step out of your comfort zone and share your work. If you can find other artists or mentors and ask them to be as honest as possible you will be getting the most valuable feedback possible. However, take everything with a grain of salt. The more you create the more confidence you will have. Stand your ground if you think someone doesn’t quite see your vision. Stand up for yourself if you think a critique is not quite right. Find that sweet balance of being open to criticism and being confident in your choices.

Of course, it’s great to share it with your boyfriend or girlfriend, mom and dad and other close family and friends who will support you and think everything you do it awesome. But when you ask for the honest feedback and are able to take that and create something even better, your skills will continue to grow.

So go! Create something awesome and do it everyday. If you could just grow 1% a day, think at where you will be in a years time. Draw a sketch a day. Post one picture a day. Download Blender and learn one tool a day. There is no substitute for hard work! Every artist that you look up to is where they are because of the countless hours they put into their work. That is why finding what you love is so important. If you don’t know what it is you love then try out your interests until you find it! Last weeks article may be able to help you on this journey.

This article was written by Timmy Hart Barron. Timmy runs #TipsWithTimmy, a live show every Friday at 1PM via Tribeca Flashpoint College’s Facebook Page bringing young artists tips on how to not only create something awesome, but of quality. Timmy is an actor and comedian here in Chicago with a passion for everything digital media. You can follow Timmy’s personal journey via every social network @timmyhartbarron and his Youtube channel TimmyTV



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