Vertical studio structure enhances visualization learning experience

Tim McLaughlin

Tim McLaughlin

The teaching this fall of an experimental undergraduate visualization studio was significantly enhanced by the “vertical studio” concept: in addition to learning from peers and interaction with their instructor, the students gained valuable knowledge through mentor/protégé relationships resulting from a unique mix of novice and veteran students.

It’s known as a vertical studio because an equal number of sophomores, juniors and seniors were assigned to each of three project groups that collaborated on the creation of an animated story, with each student assigned tasks based on their capabilities.

The students are developing knowledge, creativity and the skills necessary for successful collaborative work in computer graphic animation and visual effects through these unique mentor/protégé and peer relationships, said Tim McLaughlin, head of the department, who is lead the studio with assistance from graduate visualization students Landon Hagan and Stephanie Keske.

“Each senior took a leadership position in one artistic and one technical area,” said McLaughlin. “Each junior rotated among various areas during the semester, and sophomores primarily focused on modeling, camera, shading, and compositing.”

The three student teams were purposefully arranged to exploit complementary skills and compatibility as determined by a Myers-Briggs personality test they took at the beginning of the semester.

The teams were tasked to develop a story based on a basic theme, such as "man versus nature" or "fear of failure," which they told in 2- to 3-minute computer graphic animation. Each story had to include a transition from a photographed environment to a computer-generated version of the same.

One group’s story features a boy in a storyboard who, realizing his fate isn’t going to end well, frees himself from the confines of the storyboard, enters the “real world” and fights for his survival using pencils, paper clips and rubber bands.

In another story, a boy forced to stay indoors on a rainy day creates drawings depicting the conflicts between a tiny octopus and an enormous squid; third animated short tells the tale of a battle between a Viking and a stag that disrupts the entire natural world around them.

Work on each project was divided into six artistic disciplines — story, art, animation, modeling, camera, and lighting — and six technical disciplines — coordination, pipeline, technical animation, shading, effects animation, and compositing.

Sophomores developed physical and computer graphics models, surface materials, and lighting used in the transition from a "real" to a computer-generated environment with the goal of learning how to create virtual objects and spaces representative of the real-world.

Juniors were responsible for learning each discipline within the CG production schedule: story, layout, pipeline, art, modeling, technical animation, surfacing, lighting, effects animation and compositing. They transitioned through these disciplines over the course of the semester.

As team leaders, the seniors oversaw two or three production disciplines for their team.

“By the end of the semester 10 to 15 seconds of the story reel were fully realized, while the remainder will be completed using computer graphics and photographic techniques at a level of visual fidelity that can fully communicate the story,” said McLaughlin.

Students participating in this spring's vertical studio will complete the projects with the goal of entering them into nationwide student film competitions.

posted November 29, 2012