What it's Like to Study in a Custom Built VFX Studio: UTS Animal Logic Academy

What it's Like to Study in a Custom Built VFX Studio: UTS Animal Logic Academy

UTS Animal Logic Academy is a world class digital-production education centre, with an impressive list of alumni already making tracks in their creative careers. We talk to Brianna Jackson about her experience studying at UTS' custom built VFX Studio.

Opened in 2017, the UTS Animal Logic Academy is a world class digital-production education centre, with an impressive list of alumni already making tracks in their creative careers.

Brianna Jackson is a 22-year-old art student based in Sydney, currently undertaking a Master of Animation and Visualisation at the UTS Animal Logic Academy with a specialisation in animation. We sit with her to talk about the ins and outs of studying at UTS Animal Logic Academy in Sydney, Australia.

UTS Animal Logic Academy
A professionally-equipped studio space engineered to the highest industry standards.

The Specifics

What’s the name of your school?

UTS Animal Logic Academy

What’s the name of the neighbourhood?

The academy is located in Ultimo, a suburb in the inner-city of Sydney.

Closest train station or public transport option?

The academy is around a ten minute walk away from Central Station, which is super convenient!

Image courtesy of UTS

How long have you been there?

I’ve been studying here since the end of January 2022.

Why did you choose to study here?

After completing my Bachelor of Media Arts at UNSW, I felt a bit lost as to what my next step in life was. I felt I had solid proficiency in several programs, such as Adobe After Effects, Premiere, and Autodesk Maya, and had vastly developed my skills in 2D animation and video editing, however I was unsure how to implement these in entering the workforce.

I learnt about this course through a fellow Media Arts student, and was extremely impressed by the Academy’s examples of past student work. As a long-time fan of animated shows, movies and video games, it became clear the animation industry was the one I wanted to commit to.

I applied for the course with the intention of becoming a concept artist, and was thrilled to get accepted! As life turned out, early on in the course I ended up changing my specialisation to animation, and couldn’t be happier with this decision.

The Academy was the perfect next step for me, as it is essentially the closest one can get to a real industry studio environment while still remaining on an academic level; a bridge between university, and full-time work.

I’m so fortunate for this course’s existence, and feel at the end of the year I will be ready for full-time work.

The Scene

The first thing you see when you walk outside your school?

Depends on what exit you’re taking!

If you exit off of Harris Street, you are facing a TAFE building called ‘The Muse’. Close by on the left-hand side is a small banh mi shop, and a cafe called Soma, which has really friendly baristas who are always super lovely. Walking all the way down the street to your left takes you to Broadway, and if you walk to the right, you end up in Pyrmont.

Exiting onto Mary Ann St has you immediately facing some apartments. The building to the right is the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, charmingly nicknamed the ‘paper bag building’, home of the UTS business school. Cafe 80, a beloved spot close to the hearts of our cohort, is also here! Up the steps to your right leads you to the Good Lines Walk, which can either take you to Central Station, or Darling Square and Chinatown.

Image of UTS ALA breakout areas. Courtesy of Brianna Jackson.

Tell us a bit about the Neighbourhood. What is there to see and do?

Ultimo well and truly is right in the heart of the city, which means it is close to so many fun and bustling spots.

Darling Square is the closest, less than 5 minutes away from the studio. This place is packed full of amazing places to eat; Marrickville Pork Roll has heavenly $8 banh mi, Toastie Smith has some deliciously flavoured toast combinations, and if you’re feeling fancier, DOPA Donburi and Milk Bar has great food you can get to go.

Broadway St and Central Park Mall is a brisk 8 minute walk from the Academy. We had a picnic on the Chippendale Green here and it was wonderful. The area has Spice Alley, a small street containing a variety of Asian eateries.

Other places students often frequent in the neighbourhood are Chinatown, Paddy’s Markets and Market City. Chinatown has Sydney’s prized Emperor’s Puffs, which are freshly made cream puffs, as well as several KBBQ places, karaoke bars and claw machine arcades. Paddy’s Markets are a fun, bizarre little hub of stalls that sells food, souvenirs, clothes, toys and more (quite a few Among Us toys have been purchased here by students). Finally, Market City has plenty of amazing, cheap restaurants to eat at, as well as the beloved Thai Kee IGA Supermarket in which we stock up on snacks to last us the week.

A mandatory stop for anyone new to your city?

Vivid, an annual light and music festival held in the wintertime in Sydney. It features outdoor light installations that project onto buildings and sculptures, thought-provoking art installations, live music and several good eats. The city is truly alive during this time and it’s a thrilling social environment, but I’d recommend going on a weekday because the weekend crowds this year were a bit overwhelming. This year we got to see one of the UTS Animal Logic Academy’s 2019 cohort’s pieces, ‘Sub-Aqua’, as an art installation in Darling Square, which was amazing and so inspiring!

The best area to go to for Vivid in my opinion is Circular Quay, a port suburb that is a major transport hub for the city. You can easily get there either via train or ferry, and get spectacular views of the opera house, harbour bridge, and many other featured Vivid buildings. From here you can also visit The Rocks, which is the oldest part of Sydney, and often has quirky night markets.

Your school is great, but you wouldn't mind a bit less...

Chirping from that cricket stuck in the vents. Apparently it has been there for years. One day a friend and I tracked down which room it was in at the time, cornered it and caught it with a glass and some paper. We triumphantly paraded it around the studio a bit, before releasing it outside. Then, a few days later, we heard the chirping start all over again. Is it the same cricket? Is it the cricket’s son continuing his father’s legacy? Did we hallucinate the whole capture? Regardless, it’s still chirping to this day.

Image of UTS ALA workstations. Courtesy of Brianna Jackson.

The unofficial uniform of your school is:

Wearing a blanket around like a cape. The studio can get weirdly cold throughout the day, especially in the screening room. Some of us have learnt, especially during the warmer months when you aren’t dressed for the cold, it’s best to have a blanket handy. Personally, I have a tortilla blanket that makes me a burrito when I wrap myself up.

What clubs or extra-curricular events are offered at your school?

UTS has over 190+ clubs and societies, based on sport, music, art, games, and so on. I’m not personally a member of any club or society, and don’t know much about any of them, but there is a Dungeons and Dragons group in the Academy that gets together once a week, as well as a group of students that goes rock climbing every Wednesday after class.

How would you describe the school community?

I genuinely could not have asked for a more hard-working yet laid-back, accepting, understanding and brilliantly creative cohort than the cohort I am currently studying with at the Masters course.

It’s amazing to work in such a close knit environment in which everyone contributes their own unique perspective and artistic flair to achieve one shared end goal. Everyone is super encouraging, cooperative, and working as one big team has been a dream.

A common myth about your school is:

Because it’s the UTS Animal Logic Academy, you’re guaranteed a job at Animal Logic when you graduate. Quite a few graduates have gone on to Animal Logic, but they weren’t guaranteed a job there - they worked hard for it!

A massive night out for students at your school is likely to be:

We like to end the week by de-stressing with some snacks and happy hour drinks at Cafe 80, or as we call it, ‘Club 80’. It’s a cafe slash bar located right next to our studio. On wilder nights, we move on to feast on some Korean barbecue, typically at 678 BBQ, before bar hopping a bit more. The city is full of fun and creative pubs - a cohort favourite is Papa Gede’s Bar, which serves absinthe!

One of our biggest nights involved over half the cohort singing our hearts out at karaoke for two hours. We managed to avoid catching and spreading COVID-19, however we weren’t aware of the more vicious sickness, one we dubbed ‘karaokevid’. Several students came down with karaokevid and were out of commission for a while. I didn’t know it was possible to sing too hard, but it apparently is.

The Superlatives

You won’t find a better place to eat than at:

Marrickville Pork Roll. These banh mi must be dipped in the nectar of the gods because it is insanely delicious. I make sure to go at least once a week for lunch! In my opinion, nothing beats the classic pork filling.

The strangest thing you’ve ever seen at your school is:

The Chess Desk’. Loading scenes and rendering shots in Unreal Engine 5 often took long periods of time - deleting some geo from a level once took 20 minutes to load. During this time, a pair of students brought in a chess board and started a match in between their desks while they would wait for shots to render. This has since flourished into a scene of 8+ chess boards with active chess games taking over one desk. Plastic chess sets, wooden chess sets, a set which is an 8x8 grid drawn onto a piece of paper played on with 3D printed pieces. It is a magnificently odd sight, but the perfect place to spend time while your computer is chugging away at some dense files.

Image of student artwork. Courtesy of Brianna Jackson.

One thing you’d never change about your school is:

It’s corny, but truly, the people! Everyone is so supportive, hard-working and positive. From the diverse and tight-knit cohort itself, to the leads, IT department, pipeline, research director, studio coordinator and academy head, everyone has been wonderful. I hope to work alongside many of my fellow students in the future.

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is:

Possibly adding another lead or two. The leads are always on their A-game with juggling helping out several students as well as working on their own mysterious higher up lead duties, and I am so thankful for all the work they’ve done to help the cohort get to where we are now. I believe having another lead would help spread the workload more evenly, which means less stress for the leads and perhaps more time for students to get assistance as well.

Someone gives you $1M to pimp out your school. You use it to:

Firstly, definitely get some Cintiqs! These would be insanely useful for several departments - art, animation, modelling. I’ve used one in the past and personally feel a proper Cintiq functions wonderfully compared to a drawing tablet.

I write this and realise even if each student got a Cintiq, I would still have so much money left to spend, so I think I need to think a bit bigger. I would love a proper movie theatre-esque screening room for monthlies, dailies and movie nights, as well as a little games room for students to socialise. All the consoles and VR headsets we have would be in this room, as well as a pool table, and a giant round table to accomodate for the DnD players (the cohort’s Dungeon Master has been begging for studio space for ages, blasted COVID!)

While we’re at it, throw in a slide that takes you to the ground floor, and we’re golden.

A Day in The Life

How do you know what your professors are looking for?

Alex, the Creative Lead, is the lead of the animation department, and has been fantastic in not only communicating to us what needs to be done to improve a shot or personal project, but also in preparing us students for what is expected of us in the industry.

Alex has drilled into us several necessities that the industry wants from its animators; follow the notes closely! Always use references! Animation is reality times exaggeration! Push the note to the maximum the first time around instead of in small increments! I personally feel these general notes have been increasingly ingrained in my mind and by the end of the year they will hopefully be second nature for when I enter the industry.

On a more personal level, Alex is extremely clear with what he believes needs to be done to fix an animation, or what direction needs to be made for its progression. With his experience, he sees things that seem impossible to notice but miraculously fix the whole piece. He is able to direct our shots and help refine them, yet still allows us to have our own individual artistic flair. As we become more experienced, he has been asking us more and more what WE think we need to do to fix a shot - this can be tricky to answer, but gets us thinking critically.

Image of UTS ALA rooms. Courtesy of Brianna Jackson.

How do you break down tasks?

Every day, my department (the Animation department) has the appropriately named ‘dailies’, in which we review the shots we are currently working on. We play it on the big screen as a group and Alex gives us feedback on what to fix, or in what direction we should head in. I write down the notes as they come, and then organise them into coordinated, manageable chunks by assigning check boxes.

Going back to my desk after dailies, I work through the notes in order of most to least important - it is stressed that we always try to address the notes as best as we can. If we have time and have an idea for a different take on a shot, we are able to make it and present it as an alternative alongside the shot that hit the original criteria.

For breaking down animation shots specifically, time isn’t split equally between planning and execution - often most time is spent in planning, studying reference and blocking (creating key poses in the characters to establish timing and placement) as opposed to spline (the addition of curves which creates the motion between poses) and polish. The more refined blocking is, the easier splining between the blocked out poses becomes.

What was the latest design or tech challenge you have faced?

For Studio 2, we learnt how to navigate and use Unreal Engine 5. Many students, including myself, had to learn how to use this 3D real-time creation tool from scratch, which involved a week or so of watching lengthy, complicated tutorials, before being thrown into creating an almost entirely Unreal Engine 5 based short animated film with an 8 week limit.

Being thrown into the deep end so soon for this project was at first extremely intimidating, but with patience and much trial and error, I personally found I adapted to the new workflow well, and was surprised at how much I picked up without realising.

Instead of hand-animating the characters, we had to record the animation via motion capture with a Rokoko suit, and this step itself came with many technical challenges that the team was able to overcome. I’m really proud of not only how much the animation team was able to accomplish with such a short amount of learning time, but of how everyone in the studio did!

What is your greatest takeaway from your studies so far?

Learning is a life journey. I look back to what I knew at the beginning of the course compared to now, and I am in awe at how far I have come. Despite this, looking forward, I see how much further I am capable of going, and have come to understand that my study of animation will not be one I try and master, but one that will continue into and throughout my career.

Quadruped walk cycle. Courtesy of Brianna Jackson. Rig Credit: Daniel Moos

What advice do you have for students thinking of studying for your degree?

  1. Passion is just as important as talent.
    This has been particularly highlighted to the cohort, both entering the course and throughout it. A willingness to learn and a thirst to improve are vital qualities in picking up any skill and is what will make you stand out from someone who might have the talent but no openness to growth. I could barely make a character walk at the beginning of the year, but with enthusiasm and constant practice, trial and error, I have made it so far with my studies, and am pretty chuffed with my progress!
  2. Be willing to accept criticism, and don’t take it personally!
    You’re going to be getting a lot of feedback, constantly. Every piece of feedback is given with the intention of bringing out the best in you and pushing you to your full potential, not to personally attack your capabilities. Even though my work is certainly a product of my pride and passion, I am always learning and making mistakes, and have learnt to take feedback as a way to becoming even better at this craft I have chosen to pursue.

What have you learned as a result of participating in activities above and beyond your coursework?

Making the most of this year is imperative, and doing personal work outside of studio hours has greatly benefited my own course work. I think of what I would like to understand next in animation, or what my showreel would be lacking in, and in my own time work on animation pieces that are not shots for the big project. On Fridays, students work on our own projects, and I have made sure to work on a range of projects so that I can expand my expertise.

From doing this, I have learnt how beneficial it is to do more than the minimum that is asked of you. Assigning myself my own challenges and working on skills in areas I had never touched before has benefited me greatly, and I don’t believe I would be at the skill level I am now had I not pushed myself to work beyond what is required in the course.

How do you combine school work with your own creative work?

Since choosing to specialise in animation over concept art, my own creative work has mostly become animation-based, and every piece is with the intention of improving my skills; I haven’t had much time for personal projects! However, learning about the principles of animation and other important animation factors has certainly helped with pushing my 2D art to new limits.

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement this in your own work?

My creative mind never really turns off, even when I’m at my hospitality job. I’m constantly observing how people interact, move and speak, and thinking of how I can implement something I particularly took notice of in a future animation piece. Learning how people react to, and interact with the world is the first step when studying animation, and the next is learning how to push this to make it more interesting. The Creative Lead, Alex, always says “animation is reality times exaggeration”. There truly is limitless potential in digital 3D space!

You are always learning from your peers! There are four other talented animators I’ve been working with in this course. When I watch each other's pieces during dailies or desk rounds, I note what the animator did that I adore, for example the way a character’s eyes dart to convey their thoughts, or how they pose their hands in a walk cycle. I’m constantly inspired by my peers and it’s important to always be open to learning from others.

Aside from real world observations, I adore watching 3D animated shows like ‘Arcane’ and, and 2D shows such as ‘Gravity Falls’ and ‘Steven Universe’, and noting how they achieve ‘reality times exaggeration’, or how they are able to execute high emotional stakes with subtle body and facial cues. I learn from expert’s works about when to over-exaggerate motion, when it’s better to tone it down, how to develop characterisation through body language, clarity in action, and so on. I am personally currently practising facial and lip sync animation, and love seeing how much emotion I can convey only seeing the character from the shoulders up.

Advanced study of physical animation. Courtesy of Brianna Jackson. Rig Credit: Ugur Ulvi Yetiskin

What personal projects are you working on at the moment?

Fridays for students at the Academy are called “Self Directed Learning Fridays”, in which we work on areas of our chosen field of expertise that we feel are lacking, or that we have never delved into at all. My Friday work started tame, as I was fairly new to 3D animation - learning basic physics through ball bounces, characters sitting down, standing up and jumping. Eventually I got to body performance, quadruped rig walk cycles (I animated a little fox trot and leap at a target), and more complicated physics (a run and climb up a wall).

I’m currently working on two facial performance/lip sync pieces. One is more focused on body and face performance from the waist up and the body moves about the 2D camera space much more. The second is much more contained and highly focused on the face and subtle chest and head movements. I’m refining them both constantly; animating finer body performance has been challenging yet beyond rewarding when it comes to absorbing the notes I’ve gotten. I hope to have them fully polished soon so I can move on to more projects I have in mind; I’m excited!

How does your education complement your personal work?

My education on animation and the process behind a piece of animation has transformed my own personal work, as I have now focused my interest from 2D art to 3D animation. As I mentioned previously, I haven’t had much time for working on personal projects, however I feel my education has opened up new possibilities and opportunities for personal work in the future, whether this be for collaborative projects with friends, or individual adventures.

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

Ideally, I would like to move onto working in the animation industry soon after finishing the course while the flow of studio life is fresh in my mind. Currently I am passionate about entering the game industry, however I feel it is best to begin in animation of either shows or commercials to start, so I can begin to build and improve my showreel and gain good beginner experience in the industry as a junior. I’m keen for my life journey to begin!

You can reach out to Brianna via LinkedIn.