The Price Of Education In The VFX Industry

Cost of college tuition compared to housing prices and the Consumer Price Index.

The rise in the cost of tuition in the United States has been incredible. Here’s a good article comparing the rise in cost between education, healthcare, and housing.

It’s no surprise that education beats them all. In other words, there is a huge bubble in the price of education and there have been a few articles recently challenging the notion of getting a higher education.

In the vfx, games, and animation industry, there have been many for-profit institutions that offer a curriculum that will help you start a career in the industry, but is the return on such a huge investment really worth it?

Games Student Grad Becomes A Stripper

I came across a cringe-inducing story of a young woman who attended Art Institute in Florida for a career in the games industry. She graduated with $73,000+ in student loan debt and couldn’t get a job at any games studio. In order to pay off her student loan debt, she became a stripper.

After realizing how much of a rip-off her education was, she started a website and a series of youtube videos warning other students about these schools. Does she bear responsibility for her poor choice in education? Absolutely, but give her credit for coming out and speaking about the issue.

Regardless of whether a school is for-profit or not, at the end of the day, money is needed to keep things running. When money is involved, someone is bound to be taken advantage of. There needs to be two fundamental questions that need to be answered for potential vfx students:

  1. What is the return on investment on a vfx education?
  2. Does a vfx education give you a competitive advantage in the vfx industry?

Let me first address the return on investment. When you pay for an education, you are investing your money in the hopes of a career that provides a significant return.  Some students get their investment money from parents, while most get student loans. Sallie Mae is one the largest servicers of student loans in the United States.

They have an excellent website that helps estimate how much debt you should take on. Best of all, it also suggests what kind of income you will need to pay off such debt. I ran some numbers through the site of some popular vfx schools. Sallie Mae suggests that the monthly student loan debt payment be 10% of the monthly income after graduation. As you can see, it’s not pretty.

2 years at Academy of Art College

Tuition: $85,278 (Tuition & fees, Room & board, Books & supplies, Other fees)

Monthly loan payment after graduation: $987

Total paid after 15 years: $177,746

Estimated annual income needed: $118,440

Gnomon Digital Production 2 Year Program

Tuition: $66,075 (Does not include Room & board, books & supplies)

Monthly loan payment after graduation: $765

Total paid after 15 years: $137,700

Estimated annual income needed: $91800

2 years at Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale

Tuition: $67,982 (Tuition & fees, Room & board, Books & supplies, Other fees)

Monthly loan payment after graduation: $787

Total paid after 15 years: $141,660

Estimated annual income needed: $94,440

Higher Education Demands Higher Compensation

You can see that with such high costs of education why vfx artists command such high wages. The problem is that it’s very rare for a graduate to be making a six figure income and in an industry that looks at recent graduates as a cheap form of labor.

One vfx facility hired animators out of school at $12.50 an hour. While the work they did wasn’t on par with what senior animators could do, the logic was that if any of them could final at least one shot, it would be worth the savings. The problem is none of them could finish their shots and eventually a senior animator would have to finish the job.

When you see how high a vfx education is and that the best companies like Pixar pay the lowest in the industry at about $60,000 a year, you realize that it’s a bad investment.

Does A VFX Education Give You A Competitive Advantage?

Even if you did have the money, can a vfx education give you the competitive advantage to get a job in the industry? Not really. Most vfx facilities have stacks and stacks of applicants with demo reels. The supervisors have very little time to review reels so they go by referrals or a list of experienced artists. Even if a student reel is exceptional, it’s up to a recruiter who probably doesn’t know much about vfx to put it up for review.

The VFX industry isn’t about what school you went to or even how good your demo reel is. It’s all about leverage. If you have the ability and are able to get companies to compete for your services, you have the ability to quickly raise your rate. In some cases, paying for a VFX education can hurt you. Having a mountain of student loan debt can put you in a desperate situation where you have to take on whatever a company offers to pay off student loan bills.

So what is my advice for aspiring vfx artists who want to get into the industry?

Instead of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a vfx education, spend a few thousand on a good computer and a bunch of training DVDs. You can save a lot of money by learning vfx on your own. It’s those moments where you discover answers to common problems that you become a self learner which is a very important characteristic to have in the vfx industry. While tutorials and DVDs will show you how to use certain tools and do some cool vfx procedures, it’s knowing when to use a tool or a procedure that is key.

Attend Junior College

Critical thinking skills help bring maturity and a level head that can be the difference in communication with others. Higher education can help develop that and is still a valuable thing, it’s just way overpriced. Local community colleges provide excellent courses at very reasonable prices. You should consider getting your general education done at a junior college while supplementing your studies at home in vfx.

Don’t Just Be An Artist

The VFX industry doesn’t require a specific major or any education at all. In fact, it might be worth majoring in finance, computer science or something else to hedge your bets while you train yourself in vfx on your own. The goal should be to get a job in vfx. If that means being a wrangler, coordinator, finance assistant, do it. Get your foot in the door and start making connections with working artists. People will get to know how you work, they will see that you indeed have a demo reel that shows your interest and capabilities, and eventually you will get your chance.

My Personal Education Story

I attended junior college and later a public university. I studied computer art and quickly realized that the education I was getting was inadequate for getting a job in the industry. I continued with my education but supplemented it with courses in Computer Science and training myself on Saturdays with VFX dvds. My computer programming skills quickly landed me a job as a Technical Assistant at a VFX company where I eventually made some solid relationships with many artists who noticed my vfx skills. They ultimately were the ones and still the ones today that help me get my jobs. Your best employer isn’t the company you work for, it’s the people you work with.

The nation is beginning to notice the problems with the education system and there are calls for reform. People can’t continue running themselves into debt and not being paid appropriately. I’ve heard some mention reforming the student loan system so the amount you pay is a percentage of the income you make which seems like a good idea.

In the meantime, Soldier On.

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28 Responses to The Price Of Education In The VFX Industry

  1. Kevin says:

    Yes, I agree about learning.

    – Work hard and be nice to people
    – become a self learner (my personal fav)
    – passion + knowledge + practice = skill

    What Soldier said.

  2. JohnC says:

    This is absolutely true. I went to a less-prestigious university and got a degree in TV and Film (took me seven years, off and on, but that’s another story, lots of stories, actually, and some of them NSFW). VFX is like the circus: you just have to run off and join it. One day you’re shoveling elephant shit, a few years later you’re the ringmaster, after a solid career of clownage and acrobatics.

    Kevin pretty much nailed it. The most successful people have the qualities he mentioned. Of course, he didn’t mention that being a master of politics equal to Machiavelli is helpful if you only have one or two, or perhaps none, but it’s no surprise that those qualities are attached to good people who came up through the ranks and still get a “would work with again, A++++++” rating by production and crew.

  3. Eve says:

    The stripper story is a total farce. Don’t use that article as a point of argument, it may negate some of your points to your readers.

    Although, I agree with the majority of your article.
    As an instructor and filmmaker, I know that an art student is only as good as their portfolio. Students do have the ability to graduate at with shitty portfolios as long as they are book smart enough to pass their exams.
    The traditional education system is not suited for creative thinkers. Watch this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson to illustrate this point.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

    Economically, students and parents do not know the difference. We are a generation raised by parents who believe that having a college degree will get you a job. With the failed economy, there are far too many over educated people looking for steady work. The steady work is in education, which creates this vicious cycle.
    A friend of mine (employed at one of the highest ranked effects houses)and I had this conversation over the weekend. He was worried, as a technical director, that the job he has now, will be his last job in the industry. His feeling stems from the thought that the VFX industry is headed toward the following industry model.

    – All technical work will be farmed out to industrialized nations such as India, China, and Singapore.
    – All creative work will still be dominated by Canada, USA, and Western Europe.
    – The entry level positions for the creative jobs will be determined by the education system through unpaid internships and graduate portfolios.
    * Point – Entry level jobs used to be technical jobs, were artists could work their way through the system. Since these jobs are handled by the Asian market, European and North American artists will need a portfolio and internship to break into their fields.

    While, I don’t agree with this system, this is the model the VFX industry is currently following.
    Thoughts?

    • vfxsoldier says:

      I seem to be seeing the opposite. Technical jobs have stayed here while creative vfx jobs such as animation and modeling have gone overseas.

      • JohnC says:

        Depends on what you call ‘technical.’ If you mean things with an objective up or down approval, like matchmove and roto (it’s either right or it’s not), yes, those are going overseas, unless you’re a boutique. Boutiques hire freelancers for that stuff or the ‘creative’ artists (animation, fx, comp) do their own. If by ‘technical’ you mean the insane one-offs full of heavy fx and simulation, those aren’t going anywhere. There are new facilities popping up that specialize in that kind of stuff, many in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t worry too much about the overseas thing. As soon as Canada and the UK pull their tax breaks or stop giving checks to the studios as bribes, that’ll dry up, and they’ll all come back here to a depressed economy and an abundance of talent. They’re like medieval bandits. They just happent to be off raiding other villages at the moment.

      • Eve says:

        The NY Market is farming out their technical work: Matchmoving, Tracking, Python Scripts. I know that many high end production graphic and VFX houses in NY are doing this, however if I say who, I could get into trouble :)

  4. Leigh says:

    I don’t think the question is so much about whether or not to attend higher education to get into VFX. I think the issue is that perspective students need to become informed consumers and look at their professional training as a business investment. If you grow up around the major markets (LA, NY, London) then chances are pretty good you could start off with a runner or render wrangler position and work your way up on the job. I’m one of the fortunate people who could do both, but that option doesn’t exist for most people.

    There are places that are doing it right – a few. Unfortunately they’re overshadowed by a landscape that’s littered with tenured faculty looking to start up the next mini kingdom on campuses all across the country, with no production experience, inadequate facilities, and no contacts in the industry. Remember the Full Sail lawsuits back a few years ago?

    What needs to end is this notion that all schools have their heart in the right place, and will do the best thing for students – so we should all trust the system. And that needs to come from the people paying the tuition bills. Instead of visiting campuses to check out the dorms and cafeterias, people should be taking their kids to GDC or Siggraph, and talking to the people/companies on the show floor before they ever fill out an application.

    When you have a buyer market, whose knowledge of the industry is only based on what they see on the Iron Man special features DVD… of course it’s a recipe for disaster.

  5. Tom says:

    I too have been pulled into this mess. Unfortunately I went to the Academy of Art for 4 years. I owe TONS of money. Lucky for me I had lots of Computer Science background before heading to this industry. Thank god otherwise I would have been stuck with a large bill and very little pay.

    Though the industry is still growing. Making films is still a very small industry. You work with the same group of people pretty much your entire time (even when moving to company to company). Some who once had been your boss might work for you. BE NICE and doors will open for you. Companies love hard workers too :)

  6. John Ker says:

    Another great option is a graduate certificate program.

    I’ve been a graphic designer for a couple of years, but I have decided to do a little more school and learn some VFX/motion graphics skills.

    An 8 month course in VFX (Maya, Nuke, AE) is 12,000 (Canadian $). My program is at Seneca College in Toronto, ON.

    Spending $80,000 on school is INSANE.

    Look into other options to compliment self directed learning.

    • Tom says:

      This is an option. However, the bigger for profit schools also provid education that is more than just software. You learn the language of film, what companies do what, the ins and outs before you start working.

      Cheaper in the end may not always get you what you want. I chose an expensive school because the school was very close to the industry. Many of my teachers came from iLM and Pixar. The information is invaluable coming from someone who has worked in the industry vs someone who knows how to press buttons in a software program.

      In addition, you gain a fine arts background and an accredited degree. Someone with a 4 year fine arts degree will probably get hired over 2 year certificate. Also, the more education the better off you are pay wise. Simply knowing software is not enough in the film industry.

    • rabby says:

      John how easy is it for a US citizen to get into Canadian state run college? Thanks Rabby

  7. [...] You’ve probably also heard about the Florida AI student who graduated with a ton of student loan debt from it’s games industry program and ended up becoming a stripper. [...]

  8. Timmay says:

    Just stumbled across this post.

    I went to the Art Institute of Ft Lauderdale as well and graduated a few months before she did. While you can’t place blame on the school for her becoming a stripper, I can corroborate that the tuition was ridiculously high for the courses offered.
    I only had two instructors who I thought taught me more then just button pushing, and actually taught me theories and practical applications. Most of my instructors just taught the software. I had one instructor teaching directly from the Videocopilot website! (Apparently though the school does require its instructors to have a field related degree and industry experience before they could ever teach. How deeply they look into this though, I have no idea)

    After I stumbled upon videocopilot for myself(this was when Andrew Kramer first started his site) and discovered my instructor’s treachery, I was livid and decided to teach myself. I watched numerous training DVDs, read books, rented equipment from the school and shot my own footage and used their computers to work on after classes. I learned so much more on my own then from my instructors. B/c of this I graduated with the best reel (they hand out an award) and was offered an internship to Zoic. But I had to turn it down as it was too expensive to go to LA for an UNPAID internship and I was neck deep in student loans, about the same as the girl above.

    Eventually I got a short gig in NYC that paid decent (but not enough) and an offer to be a matte artist in L.A. (again not enough to even cover cost of living).
    I decided that going to LA or NYC and wasting my life for practically no pay was something I wasn’t going to do.
    I found jobs in other industries (very well paid and full time) using the same skills, but it wasn’t VFX related. Only after a few years of working in other industries, saving money, developing my skills, and networking was I able to land a full time VFX job that pays quite well.

    I was very fortunate after my graduation and my high tuition costs, mostly because I was open to the option of going another route to land a VFX job and never submitting to slavery like conditions just to work in VFX.

  9. manish odd says:

    Now i want to go further and i am looking for great studio or an institutes were i can learn more about VFX program. just because i want to make my career in film making industry.

  10. denson007 says:

    Thanks, I needed that.

  11. Alexander says:

    Thanks everyone, it has been very informative. That Includes the comments.

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  21. steve says:

    School isnt just for learning. pick a good school with reputable artists (gnomon, LCAD) and you have contacts. Be seen and talk to everyone, get to know everyone. I have seen many good artists that were passed over for less experienced ones because of who they knew. Its sad, but true.

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