Visual Arts @ MIT part 2 by Danny and Allan G. '20
our experience trying to prepare for the animation industry at MIT
In spring 2018, we wrote a post called Visual Arts @ MIT. In that post, we talked extensively about all the visual arts related things we have done at MIT in an attempt to illustrate that, despite common belief that MIT is just a STEM school, there is a vibrant arts community here! We talked mainly about the extracurricular ways that we have engaged with art at MIT in that post. But looking back at our four years, now that we have emphasis on (?) figured out that our career goal is to work in the Animation Industry, we have been reflecting on what skills related to animation we’ve learned at MIT, what skills we have not learned here, and how we learned/not learned them. We realized that this perspective — how can MIT help guide you to a career in animation — is something we would have really wanted to hear as high school seniors. So, here is a part 2 post, kind of written to ourselves 4 years ago (but also to any recent admits trying to decide between schools or any future applicants to MIT), about our experience trying to learn animation at MIT.
First, some background information. The 3D animation pipeline and 2D animation pipeline can both be broken into three stages — pre-production, production, and post-production. These stages all have various aspects to them that require a wide range of skills, and we are interested in multiple of these aspects in both pipelines.
To illustrate this, we made this diagram, showing all the main aspects/skills involved in the pipelines. We circled in orange the aspects we were/are interested in learning. We highlighted in pink the skills that we have learned (or started to learn) at MIT through official courses. And we highlighted in blue the skills we learned (or started to learn) during our time at MIT through atypical means, whether that be cross-registration, watching youtube videos on our free time, or creating independent studies.
Also, just to make it clear, in case it’s confusing in the diagram, the reason there is no division between 3D pre-production and 2D pre-production, is because to our understanding the process is very similar for both.
Let’s go through this diagram, skill by skill, and unpack this:
2D/3D Pre-Production Skills
This is a skill we really wanted to learn because we love the story aspect about animation. Good storytelling just warms your heart, gives you chills, makes you cry, makes you laugh. We wanted to learn how to do that. MIT has many classes in story writing through 21W, so learning this skill is something we never felt limited by through MIT’s course offerings. We both took Crafting Comics, which was a special subject offered in CMS, and it was a super fun class! We also signed up for 21W.744, The Art of Comic Book Writing, last semester and really loved it, but ended up having to drop it after 3 weeks because of The Job Hunt and Grad School Apps. We honestly only barely learned story writing as a skill, but we still highlighted this pink, because through MIT’s plethora of story writing courses, we have been able to start learning.
This is a skill we wanted to learn after seeing youtube clips of the storyboards/animatics of Steven Universe episodes. It was SO cool to see how such simple and loose drawings can be sequenced together to not only visually illustrate the story, but also dynamically enhance it through camera angles, lighting, staging, etc. We touched on storyboarding through the Crafting Comics class at MIT, but got more of a grasp for this skill in the two courses we took at MassArt, so that’s why we highlighted this one blue.
Cartoon Saloon, an Irish animation studio responsible for The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, creates such incredible character designs. Their designs are so geometric, simple, clean, and yet evoke SO much character expression and emotion. It’s actually crazy. We LOVE the owl lady’s design in Song of the Sea. Ever since watching these movies, we have wanted to learn how to design characters like this. MIT does offer a costume design class through the Theater Arts department, but there isn’t really any character design class that we are aware of. We could have cross registered again at MassArt, but never fit it into our schedules after sophomore year.
Seeing the visual development of Disney movies, like Moana is SO inspiring. These pieces of art created to flesh out the *look* of an animated TV show or film are always so beautiful, imaginative, and stylized. Again, same story for VisDev as for character design: MIT doesn’t offer classes in this, and we didn’t have time to cross reg at MassArt for this.
3D Production Skills
This category is actually an interesting one. Because, we are pretty sure that lots of people, like course 2’s and 4’s, here actually do learn this skill directly through MIT courses. CAD, computer aided design, is a big part of many engineering disciplines. That was a reason we considered both course 2 and 4 in our freshman year. The reason we didn’t declare course 2 or 4 in the end, and that we never pursed taking any course that might involve using this type of 3D modeling, is because eventually we realized that this type of 3D modeling is not exactly what we wanted to learn. Even though the skill is most likely pretty transferable, we are interested in specifically 3D modeling for the application of making artistic sceneries and props for animated content, and that specific application is not taught at MIT.
This skill is highlighted blue because we did not take any MIT courses related to 3D modeling, but we did start learning 3D modeling during our time at MIT by independently watching youtube tutorials. Also, Allan ended up creating an independent study through course 4, specifically framing it around the creation of an animated short, as a way to more formally continue learning this skill! And Danny 3D modeled props for his project during Reality Virtually 2019! Those were really cool opportunities we were very happy with!
Visual effects can be SO cool! We watched some of the Pixar in a Box videos on Khan academy and it is just incredible seeing things like the water simulations used in movies like Finding Nemo! We started learning this skill through 6.837, Computer Graphics, last semester. There was one pset on cloth simulation, which was done using a particle system, the approach used for many different visual effects. We do wish that the computer science department at MIT offered more courses like Computer Graphics so we could have dived deeper into this subject.
Lighting is another really cool computer graphics topic that we learned/touched on in 6.837. There was not a lighting specific pset in the class, but through the rendering and ray casting/tracing psets, we did touch on lighting. Also, in 6.815, Computational Photography, we talked about lighting in photography quite a bit. It is not exactly the same skill as lighting for animated films, but still related. Again, we do wish course 6 offered more classes like 6.837 and 6.815.
6.837, as mentioned in the above paragraph, had an entire pset on rendering. This produced some of the coolest results from all the psets in the class! We were able to use scene graphs to make really shiny and colorful looking scenes made from primitive shapes like spheres and cubes!
2D Production Skills
Background paintings for 2D animated films or TV shows can be so beautiful and stunning. We REALLY wanted to learn how to make these. MIT does not offer classes that teach background painting, and we couldn’t fit in a MassArt cross-reg’d class on this in our schedules. Anyways, we are trying to learn this independently by following really amazing background painters, like Lulusketches, and watching their tutorials!
We cross registered twice at MassArt to learn 2D animation! We both took animation 1 in our sophomore fall semester, which was our favorite class that semester. And then in our sophomore spring, Allan took digital animation and Danny took character animation. All our MassArt instructors were AMAZING. They gave such thoughtful and helpful critique on all our work, and were generally just such cool people. They were so insightful about the animation industry, so aware of representation in animation, so open and nice and just… our MassArt experiences were amazing. We learned so many ways to animate, from traditional paper animation to stop motion to tweening, and so many animation programs, from Photoshop to Adobe Animate.
3D Post-Production Skills
When Allan took CMS.339, VR and Immersive Media Production, a SUPER cool guest speaker came, Pete Billington. He is responsible for this really cool VR experience called Wolves in The Walls. His talk was so mind-blowing. He had such a cool perspective about the entertainment industry, where it is right now, and where it is headed, and just generally seemed super knowledgeable and willing to help. We emailed him after the talk asking for advice about how to get into the animation industry, and he responded with a super thoughtful and helpful email. One of the things he said was to look into 3D matte painting, because it is a skill a lot of entertainment companies look for. So, we each looked into it and attempted to make a 3D matte painting over last summer using the compositing software Nuke, following this tutorial. It was challenging, but fun, and the result is actually really cool! Our paintings didn’t come out entirely correctly, because we have never used Nuke before, but we are happy we took a stab at learning the skill.
2D Post-Production Skills
In our MassArt animation classes, one of the programs we briefly used was AfterEffects, to layer various animations on top of each other. We only really scratched the surface of what you can do in AfterEffects, but we are glad we know a few things about the program now!
In CMS.333, Production of Educational Videos, we learned how to use Final Cut Pro and refined our video editing skills. We also used this skill in our MassArt classes to compile our final projects. Video editing is not something we are actually super passionate about, which is why it was not circled orange, but it’s definitely a really useful skill we are happy we have and got better at through CMS.333. We didn’t highlight the editing category in the 3D pipeline, because we are not totally sure if editing for 3D animation would be the same as for videos or 2D animation. We think it might be the same, but we aren’t sure.
Now that we dissected the chart, we have a variety of thoughts about learning art and animation at MIT. We aren’t sure how exactly to organize them, because they aren’t super organized in our heads and some of the points conflict each other, but we want to provide as many perspectives and takes as possible so here are many bullet points:
- MIT can be very academically flexible: This blog may have painted MIT’s lack of computer graphics and visual art/animation classes as a negative. The flip side to this is that MIT can be very flexible in its academic infrastructure, though it may not be evident at first and may require to hurdle through forms. We are so happy we were able to cross register at MassArt twice, and the fact we could get HASS-A credit for those classes if we wanted to is really cool. Being able to count our graphic design UROP for credit was SUPER useful in the semester when 6.031, Elements of Software Construction, was consuming our lives, plus it was really fun. And the fact that we could create a computer graphics capstone-like independent study is amazing.
- Amazing extracurricular art/animation community: We would definitely say there is a thriving extracurricular art/animation community at MIT through all sorts of clubs and groups on campus (Art Club, Digital Art and Animation Group, Borderline, OrigaMIT, Arts Scholars, Rune, Chroma). As mentioned in this post’s intro, this blog is part 2 to our Visual Arts @ MIT post, which describes the amazing art opportunities outside of academics we have been able to pursue at MIT. So to get a more full perspective, please read our initial Visual Arts @ MIT post!
- Lack of academic art/animation community: Even though MIT has all of this extracurricular community, and all of this academic flexibility where you can learn these skills through atypical means, one thing we feel like we lacked is having a strong community of people and mentors who are academically interested in exactly the same thing we are. There is actually a sizable group at MIT interested in video games, and most of these people combine CMS and course 6 in some way, like we did. We have loved connecting with these people, but still felt mostly alone in terms of finding people interested in specifically animation, and those interested in pursuing it as a career. That is one of the reasons we LOVED cross-registering at the animation department of MassArt. It was refreshing to be in a room full of people, where almost everyone wanted to go into animation. Having a community of people around you and older people in that community who have your same dream job can be really nice — it creates a “were all in this together” feeling. And that feeling is something we lacked at MIT, specifically when it comes to pursuing animation as a career. We definitely interacted with people passionate about animation, through our involvement in the Animation Group and Borderline, but very few who are interested in pursuing animation as a career. A caveat to this caveat, is that we may have just been unlucky in finding people also interested in pursuing animation as a career. It is a pretty niche academic interest and MIT is pretty big, so we could have just not found those people. *Shrug* Also, another note is that this feeling of lack of academic community is something we have heard from others pursuing the humanities or arts at MIT. The fact is that a very small amount of MIT undergrads major in a field from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences or from the School of Architecture, and this results in a feeling kind of like you are the only one interested in formally studying and pursuing X.
Visual Arts related departments at MIT: One big thing that we did not talk about in any of our blogs is opportunities to purse art through Course 4 (Architecture), ACT (Art, Culture, Technology), and MAS (Media Arts and Science). These departments are very artistic, just not exactly the type of art that we were interested in pursing. This is probably not the best description nor an all encompassing list, but these fields are more in the realm of fabrication, sculpture, installation, etc. and usually do not use traditional media (painting, drawing, etc.). These departments are incredible, very rigorous, there are tons of really cool classes they offer, and we were strongly considering majoring/minoring/concentrating in course 4 or ACT. We ultimately realized that it was not exactly the type of work we wanted to do after taking 4.100 and after Danny took 4.520. With that said, these classes were really cool, gave us opportunities to build our design skills, and we are still really happy we took them! This link shows the various degrees and concentrations you can get, so to get a better idea about what type of things this department does, we would recommend clicking through and looking at the specific classes required for each of the different degrees!
- Art classes MIT does not offer: It may have been evident already from the above descriptions of our diagram but for the most part, MIT does not offer digital art, traditional 2D animation, 3D animation, 3D modeling, painting, fabric arts, nor illustration. There are classes which touch on these skills, like we mentioned above that some course 2 classes might offer 3D modeling instruction. But because there is no specifically fine arts or animation department, there are no classes which teach these skills through a fine arts or animation lens. If these skills are taught, they are taught through an engineering, architecture or other lens. The Student Art Association offers painting, drawing, and ceramics, but these are not for credit, and cost quite a bit. There is only 1 drawing class MIT offers for credit, 21M.601 Drawing for Designers, and it’s offered through the Theater Department, again because there is no traditional arts department at MIT. That class is always overenrolled because it’s a one of a kind class — Danny only got into it on his third try! Something we want to mention is that sometimes the architecture department does have interesting special subject classes like a graphic design class that one of our friends took, but these classes are not offered consistently. This is probably the main thing we have been upset about when it comes to arts at MIT – lacking art classes for-credit in the realm of drawing, painting, illustration, animation, etc.
- Edit on 04/26/20: An ACT professor reached out to us, letting us know there will be an ACT animation class offered next fall semester! It sounds really cool from the course description, and we would definitely take it if we weren’t graduating this semester.
- Maybe it’s okay that MIT doesn’t offer these classes: Another take on the above bullet point is that today there is SO much accessible learning material online. For example, we pursued the 3D compositing skill completely through YouTube alone, and for the most part learned 3D modeling and scripting that way too. Maybe it’s okay that MIT doesn’t have a fine arts or animation department, because you can learn these skills online. And, with independent study, you can create a more formalized way to take advantage of these free online resources and get credit for spending a semester learning them under the guidance of a professor. Allan did this with a course 4 independent study to learn 3D modeling, and now we are both doing this with a course 6 independent study to continue learning rendering and simulation.
- MIT exposes you to really cool and different art: Another perspective or way of looking at MIT not having a traditional fine arts or animation department is that, through MAS, ACT, and course 4, you can get exposed to, learn, and make art that you probably cannot get exposed to, learn, or make anywhere else! We only got a small taste through the few course 4 classes we have taken, but what we did learn and do in those classes, even though not directly related to our career interest, was really cool!
- Video Game classes MIT offers: Even though MIT mostly doesn’t have animation-related classes, CMS does have a number of video game related classes! Some include CMS.611 Creating Video Games, which Danny took, and CMS.617 Advanced Game Studio. We just are not as interested in the video game industry as we are in the animation industry, though these industries do have a lot of overlap of skills and people.
Cross-registering at MassArt is not perfect or easy: It is a 15 minute drive from campus, but 45 minutes on public transit. The classes you take from MassArt do not count towards your GPA or any major requirements, except the HASS-A requirement. Something else we have experienced is that MassArt classes are difficult to register for in terms of all the paperwork, which we wrote a blog about lol. (Tangentially, there is also cross registering at Harvard, which also has art classes, but we never did it. It seems easier to get all the forms for Harvard cross-reg done because the process is mostly online, whereas MassArt is still all on paper.) Back to MassArt, the classes are 6 hours long which is difficult to fit into an MIT schedule. We had to arrange our schedules so that we had one entire day without any MIT classes so we could spend all day at MassArt. Honestly, we got really lucky both times that we were able to make it work.
Cross-registering at MassArt is so worth it!: With the above bullet point said, the super positive MassArt experience that we described in the 2D animation section pretty much outweighs any of the scheduling or registering challenges we faced! Our MassArt experiences were some of the best we had in our undergrad!
- Computer graphics scene at MIT: From our experience, the computer science department at MIT is not focused on preparing students to go into the animation industry, since there are only 3 computer graphics faculty, and three classes related to animation in course 6 — Computer Graphics, Advanced Computer Graphics (which we didn’t have time to take since it’s a fall-only class), and Computational Photography. MIT is a research based school, and according to a computer graphics professor we spoke to, classical computer graphics (which is what is used in the animation industry) has been mostly “solved” from a research perspective. Nowadays, the computer graphics projects that happen at MIT are in the computer graphics/machine learning intersection mostly. This was evident in one of the last classes of 6.837, where the professor brought in graduate students to talk about their research, and most projects involved some flavor of machine learning. The projects definitely seemed cool, but we wish there was more going on in computer graphics applied to animation.
We tried our best to give a full and accurate picture of our experiences with arts/animation at MIT. We really hope that this provides useful information/perspective, and if there is anything you’d like us to expand on or clarify, let us know in the comments or via email!
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