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Rising Sun Pictures’ Anna Hodge talks VFX education and training

Based in Adelaide, South Australia, Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) has created stunning visual effects for films including Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel, Thor: Ragnarok and Game of Thrones.

It also operates a visual effects training program in conjunction with the University of South Australia in which students learn such skills as compositing, tracking, effects, lighting, look development and modeling from working professionals. Thanks to this program, many students have landed jobs in the industry.

We recently spoke with RSP’s manager of training and education, Anna Hodge, about the school’s success.

Tell us about the education program at Rising Sun Pictures.
Rising Sun Pictures is an independently owned visual effects company. We’ve worked on more than 130 films, as well as commercials and streaming series, and we are very much about employing locals from South Australia. When this is not possible, we hire staff from interstate and overseas for key senior positions.

Our education program was established in 2015 in conjunction with the University of South Australia (UniSA) in order to directly feed our junior talent pool. We found there was a gap between traditional visual effects training and the skills young artists needed to hit the ground running in a studio.

How is the program structured?
We began with a single Graduate Certificate in Visual Effects program of 12 weeks duration that was designed for students coming out of vocational colleges and universities wanting to improve their skills and employability. Students apply through a portfolio process. The program accepts 10 students each term and are exposes them to Foundry Nuke and other visual effects software. They gain experience by working on shots from past movies and creating a short film.

The idea is to give them a true industry experience, develop a showreel in the process and gain a qualification through a prestigious university. Our students are exposed to the studio floor from day one. They attend RSP five days a week. They work in our training rooms and are immersed in the life of the company. We want them to feel as much a part of RSP as our regular employees.

Our program has grown to include two graduate certificate streams. The Graduate Certificate in Effects and Lighting and our first graduate certificate was rebadged into the Graduate Certificate of Compositing and Tracking. Both have been highly successful for our graduates acquiring employment post studies at RSP.

Anna Hodge and students

We also offer course work toward the university’s media arts degree. We teach two elective courses in the second year, specializing in modeling and texturing and look development and lighting. The university students attend RSP as part of their studies at UniSA. It gives them exposure to our artists, industry-type projects and expectations of the industry through workshop-based delivery.

In 2019, our education program expanded, and we introduced “visual effects specialization” as part of the media arts degree. Unlike any other degree, the students spend their entire last year of studies at RSP. They are integrated with the graduate certificate classes, and learning at RSP for the whole year enables them to build skills in both compositing and tracking and effects and lighting, making them highly skilled and desirable employees at the end of their studies.

What practical skills do students learn?
In the Media Arts Modeling and Texturing elective course, they are exposed to Maya and are introduced to Pixologic ZBrush. In the second semester, they can study look development and lighting and learn Substance Painter and how to light in SideFX Houdini.

Both degree and graduate certificate students in the dynamic effects and lighting course receive around nine weeks of Houdini training and then move onto lighting. Those in the compositing and tracking stream learn Nuke, as well as 3D Equalizer and Silhouette. All our degree and graduate certificate students are also exposed to Autodesk’s Shotgun. They learn the tools we use on the floor and apply them in the same workflow.

Skills are never taught in isolation. They learn how they fit into the whole movie-making process. Working on the short film project, run in conjunction with We Made a Thing Studios (WEMAT), students learn how to work collaboratively, take direction and gain other necessary skills required for working in a deadline-driven environment.

Where do your students come from?
We attract applications from South Australia. Over the past few years, applications from interstate and overseas have significantly increased. The benefit of our program is that it’s only 12-weeks long, so students can pick up the skills they require without a huge investment in time. There is strong growth of jobs in South Australia so they are often employed locally or sometimes return to their hometowns to gain employment.

What are the advantages of training in a working VFX studio?
Our training goes beyond simple software skills. Our students are taught by some of our best artists in the world and professionals who have been working in the industry for years. Students can walk around the studio, talk to and shadow artists, and attend a company staff meeting. We schedule what we call “Day in the Life Of” presentations so students can gain an understanding of the various roles that make up our company. Students hear from department heads, senior artists, producers and even juniors. They talk about their jobs and their pathways into the industry. They provide students with sound practical advice on how to improve their skills and present themselves. We also run sessions with recruiters, who share insights in building good resumes and showreels.

We are always trying to reinvent and improve what we do. I have one-on-ones with students to find out how they are doing and what we can do to improve their learning experience. We take feedback seriously. Our instructors are passionate artists and educators. Over time, I think we’ve built something quite unique and special at RSP.

How do you support your students in their transition from the program into the professional world?
We have an excellent relationship with recruiters at other visual effects companies in South Australia, interstate and globally, and we use those connections to help our students find work. A VFX company that opened in Brisbane recently hired two of our students and wants to hire more.

Of course, one reason we created the program was to meet our own need for juniors. So I work closely with our department heads to meet their needs. If a job lands and they have positions open, I will refer students for interviews. Many of our students stay in touch after they leave here. Our support doesn’t stop after 12 weeks. When former students add new material to their showreels, I encourage them to send them in and I forward them to the relevant heads of department. When one of our graduates secures his or hers first VFX job, it’s the best news. This really makes my day.

How do you see the program evolving over the next few years?
We are working on new initiatives with UniSA. Nothing to reveal yet, but I do expect our numbers to grow simply because our graduate results are excellent. Our employment rate is well above 70 percent. I spoke with someone yesterday who is looking to apply next year. She was at a recent film event and met a bunch of our graduates who raved about the programs they studied at RSP. Hearing that sort of thing is really exciting and something that we are really proud of.

RSP and UniSA are both mindful that when scaling up we don’t compromise on quality delivery. It is important to us that students consistently receive the same high-quality training and support regardless of class size.

Do you feel that visual effects offer a strong career path?
Absolutely. I am constantly contacted by recruiters who are looking to hire our graduates. I don’t foresee a lack of jobs, only a lack of qualified artists. We need to keep educating students to avoid a skill shortage. There has never been a better time to train for a career in visual effects.

Peter Amies joins SGO as training, education mentor

Soho, London – To help manage the training strategy for its Mistika and Mamba FX software solutions, SGO has hired training and education mentor Peter Amies.

Aimes comes with a strong technical background that includes customer services, workflow coordination, and technology management for high-end post. Before joining SGO, he worked at New Zealand’s Park Road Post Production for six years, starting out in their film laboratory and moving to in-house post production coordinator, and working on managing workflow and delivery for a range of short-form and feature length projects through the laboratory, DI and sound departments. He began his career at Norway’s Cinevation as product manager for the Cinevator film-recorder product line where he worked for over four years.

Geoff Mills, SGO’s director of global sales and operations said, “Peter Amies has joined SGO at an important time, and we are delighted to welcome him as a key member of our team. As SGO expands further, it is imperative that our educational strategy is in place as demand increases. Armed with an impressive portfolio, Peter will be an excellent asset with his relevant expertise and knowledge and will predominantly focus on the technical development needs and post production skill sets, which are of enormous value in the industry.”