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Schools help budding game designers, animators polish craft

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 17, 2000

Last January, Brian Johnson, a 31-year-old construction foreman in Detroit, loaded his television, his computer and his cat into his pickup truck and headed to California to fulfill a childhood dream of making his living as a computer animator.

Enticed by a local radio advertisement, Johnson enrolled at the Ex'pression Center for New Media, a new school in Emeryville, Calif., across the bay from San Francisco.

The cat disappeared a few days after the move, but the rest of Johnson's experience has been happy. "I'm very glad I did this," he said. "I feel much closer to achieving some of my childhood dreams than I ever have in my life."

Johnson, who holds an associate of science degree from a military college in Georgia, will graduate in March with an associate of applied science degree in digital visual media. He has lined up a job in California with Silent Planet, an Orlando animation company.

Ex'pression is one of a handful of new degree-granting schools that offer no courses covering The Iliad, The Aeneid or Le Morte d'Arthur. Not that they shy away from battles or heroes. In fact, those subjects are at the heart of their mission. They offer a rigorous, narrowly focused curriculum in creating fantasy worlds and action games. While educators with more traditional programs are skeptical about such an approach, those running the newer programs defend them as an efficient way to produce new crops of computer animators and computer game designers.

Ex'pression, which offers associate degrees in digital visual media and sound arts in a 14-month program, advertises itself as a "total-immersion boot camp." The courses, with titles such as 3-D Modeling and Advanced Effects, train aspiring animators to reflect light off Buzz Lightyear's helmet or give Sonic the Hedgehog his quirky movements.

There is nothing vaguely scholarly about the school. Its atmosphere is less collegiate than a high-tech start-up. It occupies 65,000 square feet in a cavernous renovated office building once owned by Sybase, a software company.

The walls, painted purple, red and yellow, look like something Willy Wonka might have dreamed up. Classrooms have large interior windows to make it easier to show visitors around, Ex'pression president Gary Platt said.

Ex'pression is financed by Eckart J. Wintzen, a Dutch computer entrepreneur who has poured $23-million into the school and its state-of-the-art computer and sound equipment.

In a telephone interview from Amsterdam, Wintzen said he had set up Ex'pression (the school's name is partly a play on Eck's, from his first name) as a model for teaching computer-based skills such as computer animation. "This is stuff you can't learn from a book or from a teacher standing in front of a class with slides," he said.

Indeed, the school's library is a sparsely endowed, lonely looking room. Apart from multiple copies of the Global Village and other titles by and about Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas fascinate Wintzen, the collection is limited to titles such as Television Fundamentals and the Audio Engineer's Reference Book.

The real learning, Wintzen said, takes place not from books but in the many computer laboratories and sound studios where the school's 162 students sharpen their skills. The school has its own render farm, which is a collection of powerful computers that perform the time-consuming computations necessary to produce complex animation sequences.

Platt said a render farm like the school's was usually found only at computer animation studios. He says proudly that the school taught animation using Maya, a sophisticated software package for digital animators that is being adopted at Pixar Animation Studios, of Toy Story fame.

Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects division of Lucas Digital in San Rafael, Calif., are two brass rings of prospective employment for the school's first graduating class, which will receive diplomas in March.

Pixar seems to be something of a fixation at the school. Original line drawings of characters from Toy Story hang on one wall. Various dolls from the film and its sequel are displayed on office credenzas.

Only 25 percent of Ex'pression's students come straight from high school. The rest have been to other schools or, like Johnson, have worked at less gratifying jobs. To help pay the $30,700 tuition for the digital visual media program (the school is not yet accredited to offer federal financial aid), said Yee-Ju Lin, the school's admissions director, students have found other sources of loans, borrowed from families and sold their cars. To save money, one student lives in his van, which he has outfitted with a bed and keeps in the school parking lot.

About one out of every two applicants is admitted, she said, and the only test scores required are those from the Wonderlic test, a basic aptitude test.

The equivalent of Ex'pression for budding video-game designers is the Digipen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash., which has been granting degrees since 1994. It trains its 250 students in either a two- or four-year program that places more emphasis on math and physics.

Claude Comair, the school's founder and president, said science and math were taught within the context of video games.

"I don't have to do the rhumba in front of my students to get their attention," he said. "If the homework is to implement a video game using those sciences, the students are more willing to learn them."

Digipen is so closely affiliated with the Nintendo gamemaker that Comair is also chairman of Nintendo Software Technology, the company's game programming arm. And the school is on the Nintendo grounds. Yet Digipen officials say the school also feeds other leading game companies, including Sega and Electronic Arts. Nintendo has no financial stake in the school, but a company representative holds a seat on Digipen's advisory committee.

Both Digipen and Ex'pression subscribe to the total immersion theory of education. Students in the digital visual media program at Ex'pression spend three hours each day in classes and another six hours in the computer laboratories.

"People don't party here," Platt said. "There's no time."

During the school tour, Platt, who is 45 but cultivates a younger demeanor, stopped occasionally to offer a spirited greeting to random sleep-deprived students.

"Hey, man, how ya doin'?" he called out as he passed, putting on a just-one-of-the-guys attitude.

Some students at Ex'pression use distance learning to satisfy general education requirements in fields such as English, history and psychology, which Platt considers to be "fat" in a higher-education curriculum.

"I have no interest in teaching that stuff," said Platt, who received a bachelor's degree in music and education from Ohio University and has worked in the sound recording industry. Instead, he said, he prefers to send students straight to the computer.

Ex'pression and Digipen also function as expensive outlets for childhood fantasies. Not surprisingly, the student populations are almost entirely male.

At night, after long days of hard work, students at Ex'pression often transform the computer laboratories into large arenas for playing video games. Comair said the Digipen campus often became one large networked game.

Johnson said it was seeing the film The Empire Strikes Back at age 12 that sparked his desire to work in special effects.

The same was true for Sheldon Baines, 24, a recent Digipen graduate who played Nintendo games while growing up in Newfoundland. "I used to think how cool it would be to make games as a living," he said. "But I cast it away as a silly dream." Now happily ensconced as a programmer at Nintendo, Baines is finishing work on Ridge Racer 64, a new game for the Nintendo 64.

After pulling three all-nighters in a row, Roy Miles, 28, another Ex'pression student who will graduate soon, sat in a computer laboratory and explained to a visitor that he hoped to work for Pixar, which is planning to move into a large new building in Emeryville, less than a mile from the school.

Miles said he had worked hard to cultivate contacts there. To help pay his tuition, Miles holds a full-time job as a night custodian at nearby Sybase.

Despite the cost of 14 months at Ex'pression, Platt said, 25 percent of the students there do not plan to do the extra work required for an associate's degree and will leave with a certificate. "They don't seem to care -- that's what I love about it," he said. "They're going to school for the right reasons -- not just to get a degree but to acquire the knowledge, the skills and the experience."

Degree or no degree, Platt said, "we think our students will be the prime candidates in the world when they leave."

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