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Creating a deeper talent pool: training for Mistika, Mamba FX

Now that SGO Mistika systems are being installed here in the US, postPerspective thought it would make sense to find out what the company is doing about training artists so studios that have invested in the product have a deeper pool of talent to pick from when the need arises.

With that in mind, we reached out to David Cox, who has been helping SGO with their training efforts. Here is his take on the subject.

By David Cox

An interesting challenge for any manufacturer that aspires to bring a new product to market — or a different way of thinking to an existing market — is how to cultivate an extensive user-base by training enough individuals to allow their technology to take hold.

As a long-time user of the SGO Mistika post-production system, I have spent some time over the last few years training new operators so they will get the most out of the system. I created and maintain the video tutorials at the SGO online user forum and recently opened MambaTutorials.com to enable VFX artists to download and learn SGO’s low-cost compositing software, Mamba FX.

Those two core SGO products have very different sales volumes since they are at opposite ends of the pricing spectrum, and this directly impacts how training takes place. Mistika training tends to start as one-on-one during pre-sales and this continues when a new system is installed. Training for Mamba FX is via online video tutorials and by peer-to-peer assistance.

Motivating Artists
The initial challenge for any manufacturer to overcome is finding a way to stimulate and motivate artists so they want to learn their new product. We are all creatures of habit and we like to be the master of the post system in front of us. We need to react instantly to our client’s demands and “looking cool” doing so is all part of being our client’s favorite post guy.

Going back to the first day of school is not a fun prospect, so there has to be a compelling reason why we should invest in learning a new system. The post industry has the potent combination of being rapidly changing and highly competitive, so standing still means losing ground to progressive competitors. This motivates many to re-evaluate their skills so they can address wider domains and create more opportunities. Postperspective’s excellent article about the evolution of the colorist — featuring Alexis Van Hurkman — framed this concept very well.

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David Cox

Certainly I find that colorists coming to Mistika do so because they have decided that their creative boundaries should not be restricted by color alone. They see the creative and competitive advantages gained by adding “compositing” skills to their toolset so they can include textures, light and filters into their looks. So a manufacturer’s desire to establish a trained user base has to start with a compelling case to persuade a new user to invest their time in training.

Once an interest has been sparked, the manufacturer then needs to have the resources ready to enable access to training. For something like Mamba FX, this is relatively straightforward since it is a software-only product. Users can download a free trial version from MambaTutorials.com and follow the video tutorials.

Mistika is slightly more complicated, partly because it is often installed as the centerpiece of a major installation with control panels and the like, and partly because one of its features is its realtime performance. The latter of course relies heavily on the hardware it is surrounded by. This is why SGO’s preferred method for training with Mistika is one-on-one, although they have also produced a training version of Mistika called Mistika “Insight,” which can be installed on most PCs. While the realtime speed might not be permitted by the user’s hardware, this sort of training aid provides a helpful way for new users to get some hands-on experience with the interface.

A New Way Of Thinking
Once training has started on any new system, there is a natural mental barrier to overcome. The most natural thing for us to do when confronted with a new system is to try to work it just like our old system. This invariably leads to frustration as different systems work in different ways and often trying to stick to the same methodology and keyboard short cuts just leads us down dead-ends. The quicker we get to set aside our existing knowledge and open our mind to a different way of doing something, the quicker it all falls into place.

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With that said, a skilled colorist, editor or compositor should be able to work out how to use a product like a Mistika, given that it is aimed at them. So when I am training someone, if there is an aspect that a new user finds especially difficult to grasp, I take that as valuable feedback for the developers.

Apart from the usual feature request list, SGO also maintain a development list, which is internally known as the “WTF! List.” This contains areas targeted for re-development because new-user feedback revealed that those parts are just unnecessarily complicated or convoluted. Those processes probably became like that after many evolutions of development so while they might make sense to long-time users, it makes no sense at all when looked at afresh!

Training is a two-way street: the new user is, of course, learning what they need to know, but it is also an opportunity for the manufacturer to get valuable “fresh eyes” feedback to test how practical their radical ideas are, or even to find out if their ideas could be even more revolutionary.

When It Clicks
There is often an obvious turning point during the training process when the new user seems to suddenly shed the frustration and trepidation shown at the outset. I think it is when the soon-to-be-expert operator “gets” the underlying concept and then finds that almost everything else just follows. Most systems have a kind of a language, which sets how the user controls it. Once we understand that language the rest of the system (and all the new creative possibilities) suddenly reveal themselves.

One of the enduring attractions post has for me is that we always need to be learning and adapting. Our roles in this industry are still incredibly young compared to “proper” jobs involving law or accountancy, and this means those roles are rapidly evolving. Technology companies such as SGO play a large part in enabling our next steps, but ultimately it is for us as artists to constantly push forward by learning new techniques and unveiling new creative possibilities. It’s the job of the manufacturers to make this more enticing and productive with access to good training support and resources.

UK-based David Cox is a visual effects artist and post production consultant with 20 years experience. For more information and show reels visit www.davidcox.tv.

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