Whether you’re already at school, looking to find a new school or even considering moving overseas to study, nothing beats hearing from the students themselves! We speak to Forrest Pando about the ins and outs of studying at Academy of Animated Art.
What’s the name of your school?
Tell us a bit about how you came to be studying at your school.
After the pandemic began I was at a moment of indecision. I was wrapping up a masters degree in film studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and had been offered a PHD. Knowing that I would have to fund it and that the academic career outlook was abysmal, I could not see a world in which I could justify doing the PHD.
While mulling over options, I played The Last of US II shortly after it was released. I was blown away by the game's storytelling and how the medium of games elevated my emotional connection to the characters. As the credits rolled, I decided I had to pivot into games…but I had absolutely no clue how to do it.
I was given some great advice to “find something analogous from your work in film that you would enjoy in games”, and that led me to learn more about the role of a lighting artist in games. Many of the same principles carry over from film into games and I quickly became passionate about lighting for games.
I began to search for ways to get into the industry and all roads pointed to needing a strong 3D lighting portfolio, but I didn’t know exactly how to get to that point. I started going through the bevy of tutorials on YouTube, all ranging in difficulty and I had no real way to discern what a good tutorial was and what a bad one was.
Fortuitously, while watching a tutorial, an ad played for the Academy of Animated Art. The claim was you could “get a lighting job in a year”. I laughed that promise off but decided to click on the link which led to an hour long master class.
That class [at Academy of Animated Art] was so inspiring and clearly laid out a way to improve through daily mentorship that I immediately signed up.
Why did you choose to study at Academy of Animated Art?
Since lighting is a very specific discipline and it's in demand, which has grown rapidly rather recently, there are not a whole bunch of schools which focus on it. There are a handful of online courses, but a lot of them don’t offer comprehensive feedback on a daily basis. The idea of being able to work closely with talented lighting artists and get their feedback on my work frequently was an offer too good to refuse.
Being an online school, what does a week look like for you?
What’s great about AAA is that it meets me where I’m at. At the time of starting the course I did not have a job and had recently completed a masters course. This meant I was able to work on the tutorials and coursework like I was in a 9-5 job.
I was consistent and AAA worked great for that. At the same time it works for when you have intermittent availability. I eventually did get a job shortly after starting AAA and I was also completing a masters in game production. I had less time to work on my lighting work but I fit it in where I could. The Academy of Animated Art caters to that schedule as well. Since the feedback is daily and not required, when I had something to show I could, and since the feedback is recorded I could revisit it when I got more time to iterate on my work.
You've learned a wide range of skills and software. What tools are you enjoying the most so far?
Starting the course I was using Maya and Nuke very often. I would also play around in Adobe Substance 3D Painter. As I continued in the course, I began to shift more into Unreal Engine, where I spent most of my time towards the end of AAA and is now what I use for my job! For gathering and storing reference I use a combination of PureRef and Pinterest.
What advice do you have for students thinking of studying online?
The ability to access tutorials and mentorship from industry professionals has really helped remove a lot of the barriers to learning 3D Art. At the same time, some of those programs lack structure and require self-motivation. If you are looking for rigorous structure and have the means, of course an in-person university experience can be the best option for you, but, if you can introduce structure for yourself then online learning is incredibly rewarding and a fraction of the cost.
If you do need that structure, I’d recommend trying out online learning and give yourself “school hours” that you stick to. Since it can be relatively inexpensive, you could at least try it out and then make a decision on if you still would want to go in-person.
How would you describe the school community?
The community at AAA is incredibly supportive and active. People are coming from all different starting points in their 3D art journey and everyone is so friendly. The main way of interfacing with others is through discord. This has been a great way to share work and give feedback as well as help solve each other's issues. A lot of issues that pop up in the coursework are things that other students have experienced so there is plenty of shared knowledge between students which helps everyone through.
Students who have gone on to work in the industry in big positions, still come back to say hi and share their expertise. The program has been seriously life changing for me and many others and there are so many alumni who are still participating and giving back. Now that I’m working professionally as a lighting artist, when an application comes through with Academy of Animated Art portfolio pieces or on their resume, I know that that is someone who has learned the fundamentals of lighting and has pushed themselves to further develop their creative eye.
The strangest thing you’ve ever seen at your school is:
Some of the animation rigs without clothes…
Under the close, typically, is just a lump of skinny geometry with thin cylinders for arms and legs with a skin material applied. Definitely nightmare fuel.
One thing you’d never change about your school is:
The focus on community. There are so many online programs that are designed to give the “feel” that you’re in school but then they lack the social/mentor interactions. You may get a monthly feedback session or written critique but it doesn’t feel connected, you feel like an individual taking a self-driven course. I’ve taken a couple of those courses during and after my time at AAA and their short-comings were always brought into sharp perspective when comparing to the community at AAA.
AAA community chats are typically buzzing with activity daily; whether that is: people sharing their artwork, people asking for feedback, people helping troubleshoot others issues, sharing helpful tutorials or links, or sharing funny lighter memes. This made me feel like I was part of an active school and community and AAA leverages that community as a support system for its students.
One of the other students, Diana Lee, and I run a weekly event open to the entire AAA Community called the Academy of Animated Art Community Critique & Chill. This is a time for students, community members, and professionals to hangout, share and receive feedback, troubleshoot software problems, and just...hangout!
The pandemic brought into focus the need for online community and social engagement so we decided to make it happen and AAA was so incredibly responsive and excited for us to house that in their community.
If anyone reading this is interested in learning more, find me on the AAA discord community and join in on the fun!
What personal projects are you working on at the moment? How do you stay motivated?
I am now gainfully employed as a lighting artist! That keeps me very busy and so I have not taken much time to work on personal projects. I of course could work on projects after work, but I am working on fostering work life balance in my life. So, after work I try to unplug a little bit by spending time with family and getting out of the house. This helps me recharge and be ready to bring my passion back into the work in my job.
I do see myself getting back into personal projects, and when I do it will definitely be because some idea of a story I want to tell gets a hold of me and won’t let me go.
I do strongly feel that the key to me staying motivated [to create personal projects] is having work life balance.
Where do you see yourself after graduation?
I am very fortunate to have been offered a position as a lighting artist for AAA games at Lost Boys Interactive, who were recently purchased by Gearbox Interactive. This is a dream come true job, I’m embedded in a project that is incredibly exciting and tells a very compelling story.
I came into this program hoping that it would prepare me for this sort of scenario and it absolutely did. I was able to meet with mentors and receive valuable advice on my work and website, push myself through the lighting challenge provided each month, and ultimately become a better artist and employee.
Forrest Pando is a recent graduate of The Academy of Animated Art, and has started a new job as a lighting artist for Lost Boys Interactive, a division of Gearbox Interactive.