WOOOHOOOO! Animation Mentor turns 10!
Animation Mentor first opened its doors on March 27, 2005. Professional Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic animators, Bobby Beck, Shawn Kelly, and Carlos Baena had a vision to create an online animation school, with a goal to teach anyone in the world who wanted to learn animation. It was the first online animation school of its kind, when online schools were still an anomaly. After 10 years, hundreds of graduates, and making people’s dreams come true, Animation Mentor continues to change the game. Read on as the Founders reflect on the past ten years!
– The Animation Mentor Crew
ANIMATION MENTOR: Why did you create Animation Mentor?
BOBBY: In 2003, when we first had the idea, it was something that just needed to happen. Most art schools were, and still are to a large extent, teaching software, not art. Students are still paying ridiculously high prices for 4 year educations and not coming out with anything to show for it. That is so sad. Animation Mentor has always been about laser focused education from the best professionals and at a price where people can pay it back within a year or two of working VS paying for the rest of their lives on student loans.
SHAWN: Honestly, it was born out of seeing what little value animation students were getting for their expensive tuitions at traditional art schools. They were (and sadly still are) graduating with “animation degrees,” while having spent only a fraction of their education actually studying the art of animation. These graduates were nowhere near ready to walk into a studio and start animating, and we knew there had to be a far better and far cheaper way to teach this art we love so much.
I had been lucky enough to have found a mentor in Wayne Gilbert, who really took me under his wing and taught me so much about animation. For me, Animation Mentor was about finding a way to provide that master-apprentice experience to anyone who wanted it, no matter where they lived.
CARLOS: I learned animation in a time where you’d be lucky to even find a VHS tape of lecture given by a professional animator. Usually it was a copy of a copy of a copy. Much of what we learned was from trial and error. It wasn’t until we started working professionally that we learned lots of things we wished we had learned in School. Unfortunately that was long after spending a massive amount of money in School, and not feeling like we got our money’s worth. So in starting the School, it was brought up early on to give an education where learning animation was a very fun and creative process, where students felt they got what they paid for (and more) and to make the knowledge accessible to those who weren’t fortunate enough to move to another country because of family, visa, etc.
ANIMATION MENTOR: What surprised you most when you launched Animation Mentor?
BOBBY: Ha ha, so many things! If I was to narrow it down to one thing, it’s the same thing that surprises me to this day. That is, of course, the community. The Animation Mentor community is second to none. We have the most passionate, supportive community of people I’ve ever met. Everyone helps each other out. They help each other each week, they help each other when it comes time to getting jobs, they make real, long-lasting relationships and that is so powerful.
This social learning aspect is something we bet big on from day one and is still the #1 thing that sets us apart from any of our competitors. It’s the thing that excites us the most about the school as education is one key, and making it social gives it color and a life that lives, breathes and thrives.
SHAWN: Yeah, the social aspect of AM still blows my mind. We did make very conscious choices from Day 1 that we hoped would foster an atmosphere that felt as much as possible like sharing a classroom, but seeing our students go so far beyond just being “peers,” and instead finding true best friends or forming a studio together or getting married? That stuff still blows me away and while the depth of the community surprises me, it’s also probably the aspect of the school that I’m proudest of.
CARLOS: The School’s Community took a life of its own even before our initial launch. That was fairly frightening in the event that the online experience didn’t work. Fortunately it did. After the launch the community’s interaction surpassed our expectations. Gatherings started happening in different parts of the world, people were meeting online and creating group supports, friendships, relationships. We had several technical challenges in the beginning, and it was very encouraging to see both students as well as mentors, embrace to bring the School forward. The next surprising aspects for me was to see the quality of the work getting better and better in such little time. Something that would take me years to learn because I didn’t have people to learn from, people were learning in less than a year thanks to the mentors/student peers.
ANIMATION MENTOR: When you started Animation Mentor 10 years ago, what did you imagine it would look like 10 years later?
BOBBY: We believed/believe that collaborative learning should be a big aspect of learning and we bet big on this. However, when we released our collaborative track people didn’t flock to it the way we thought they would.
Learning together and working in teams is what animation and the creative spirit is all about. You get the best work when you are closely working with others on a shared goal. We’re not giving up on it, we’re rethinking the approach and we believe we’re close to cracking the nut. At least the next iteration of it, that is.
SHAWN: Thanks to our incredible staff and the enthusiastic contributions of our students, the school has evolved a LOT over the last decade. There is no comparison between what AM is today versus 10 years ago. It’s like going from a black and white tube TV to an 80” 4k beauty on your wall. Both TVs have the same basic core function and goals that haven’t changed at all, but there is no denying how far TV has come over the years.
AM is the same way for me, so it’s hard to go back in time and remember what I imagined 10 years ago. Honestly, I just remember hoping that we would be around long enough to help some students make their dreams come true. 10 years later, it’s kind of overwhelming to look back at all the success stories that have graduated from AM, or even to think of all the AM grads I have got to work with during my day job at ILM. It’s sincerely humbling.
CARLOS: Quite honestly, I never wondered whether it would last or not. First couple of semesters we just wanted things to even work, after a few semesters we were just hoping students would make it through the entire program and were satisfied with the experience. Nothing more terrifying than spending a long time working on something that people won’t like afterwards. So when people started graduating and getting what they were looking for, honestly that has been one of the biggest payoffs of the School, whether it lasted 1, 5 or 10 years. Additionally, looking back at the journey, I think every year new challenges have come up, which made AM look into ways to resolve those challenges while preserving the core motivation of providing what’s best for the education of the students, whether it’s better classes, better and more diversified curriculum, better rigs, etc.
ANIMATION MENTOR: How do you think Animation Mentor has evolved in the past 10 years?
BOBBY: We continuously evolve the curriculum, the assignments and the mentorship model, etc. We added our file management pipeline which allows mentors to open up student’s work in their live sessions from anywhere in the world and go through them with screen share. It’s like having someone look over your shoulder. You might say dropbox can do most of this, but when we’re talking about the complexity of multiple assets/files and group dynamics, our file management pipeline is truly something special. We use our file management pipeline to develop new characters, share assets, etc and this has really taken off.
The level of customer experience has also been something we’ve played a lot with. I think we’ve really gotten back to our core and have a nurturing environment. We have many programs to help students who are struggling which range from faster support response times, coaching, peer buddies, alumni tutors, and multiple support Q&A’s per week. If you want it, it’s there. AM is a very special place to learn and everyone who is a part of it says it changes their lives.
There’s so much that makes Animation Mentor more than learning animation and those are the aspects that really set us apart from anything and everything out there.
SHAWN: In my mind, the biggest evolutions have revolved around making the school even more nurturing for the students. Animation is not an easy art to learn, and as time has gone on, we have developed more and more ways to help give each student the best learning environment we can think of.
We always wanted the school to have a positive vibe, an excited and enthusiastic attitude, and we worked hard right from the beginning to try to infuse the school with positivity. Over the years, that core school “vibe” has only become even stronger as we found more and more ways to offer support to the students.
Visually and from a technology standpoint, I don’t think there is any aspect of the school that still exists from the version we debuted with. The school has been redesigned multiple times as we learned new and better ways to teach and streamlined the learning experience. Amidst all of that, though, we have always been really careful to remain true to our core principles and that core “vibe.” Animation should be fun, and you should get to learn it in a fun environment, and we never want to endanger that by cutting corners or putting up arbitrary barriers for the students.
CARLOS: It’s changed a lot over the years, definitely. We’ve come up with things that would seem like they wouldn’t work at first…but we had to start somewhere, then refine. Some things worked and others didn’t as we hoped. And that was because as the Industry changed, Education changed as well and continues to change. Our hope is to continue reinventing the School and keep it relevant every year while staying true to the AM student’s education/experience first.
ANIMATION MENTOR: There are a lot of online animation schools now, how does Animation Mentor stay relevant?
BOBBY: By looking at what we’re doing and not trying to copy others. We’ve always been innovators in the learning space and there is just so much more to do. No one is really doing things differently than what we did 10 years ago and we’re constantly trying new things, failing, learning and shaping how learning can and should evolve. We’re a small company and we put 100% of our profit back into the development of new tools, technology and content. In ways we move slow, but when we move we move in big ways.
SHAWN: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I think we should feel pretty great about ourselves. Yes, these days there are a lot of other animation schools out there, and a couple of them do seem to have the students interests at heart, but the vast majority of these schools offer an experience that pales in comparison to the experience at AM.
There is room for many online schools, and I don’t want to bad-mouth any of them. I just sincerely want every animation student to have the best chance they can possibly have at getting their dream job. Knowing the depth of what we put into AM, and the innovations we have made over even just the last few years, makes it really hard for me to not be worried about the students at some of these other schools.
CARLOS: I don’t really know the answer other than by continuously asking for feedback to students/mentors/studios and hope we can address their concerns while trying new things that we think would be fun/interesting to their learning experience. Students seeking for education should always talk to other students to see what their experiences were in this or that School. It was never AM’s mission to be the only School out there…but it was always our mission to make the experience a unique one. If the AM experience is not what we are hoping it to be, then we are doing something wrong. We’ve always been asking students/mentors for feedback to try to address the issues as much as we can. We have the flexibility that we are still small enough that we are able to change things as we go.
ANIMATION MENTOR: If you could give yourself one piece of advice 10 years ago, what would it be?
BOBBY: Go for it. Don’t doubt yourself. No one knows what they are doing and you make it up as you go. Trust that, and don’t let your inner voices get the best of you.
SHAWN: We were all taking a big leap of faith. I had a lot of confidence that there was a need for what we were doing, but it was hard not to have moments of doubt at 3am in the middle of months and months of 120 hour weeks when it was just the three of us trying to develop the curriculum and put together that first round of content and lectures…
I’d love to go back to one of those late nights and confirm to myself that it will totally be worth it. To tell him that he’s going to get to see students achieve their dreams. That he will someday work alongside AM graduates at ILM. That he will become friends with people from all around the world and see THEM become such good friends with each other. That he’s going to get to go to a wedding of AM grads, or better yet, that he will be IN a wedding when one of AM’s first beta testers turns out to be the girl of his dreams.
I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life than AM, but it has enriched my life so far beyond anything I could have imagined. I guess that’s what I’d like to tell that tired kid at 3am…
CARLOS: To enjoy the day to day more and not worry so much about whether we would make it to the end of the line, or whether it would even work or not. There was a time when we were creating AM, when I thought the hard work would never end, and it was frustrating how long it was taking…and unfortunately, sometimes that got in the way of actually enjoying each moment of what it was that we were creating. I often forgot that just like with everything we do in animation, the end goal is not as important as the journey.
ANIMATION MENTOR: As the next generation of aspiring animators start their journeys, what words of wisdom would you like to share with them to help them reach their dream?
BOBBY: Have a dream and set goals to get there. If getting into a school like Animation Mentor seems far away then contact us, we’ll help you set up goals to start saving. Know your dream, print out pictures and put them around your work area. Look at them when you feel down and remember the dream you are shooting for. Know that you will be rejected, pushed, critiqued, and, over time, know that you will embrace these things as tools that empower you VS make you afraid. Never let anything or anyone get in the way of your dreams. If you want it no one can make it happen but you. The clearer you are, the more real your dream will be and one day you’ll look back and be proud of yourself for living a life you led, VS a life that led you.
SHAWN: Don’t be afraid to fail. If you are a student of animation, you need to embrace failure. You are going to do a lot of bad animation. We all do. That’s just part of the process. You animate something and you fail and you learn from that. The next time you animate, you do that one aspect a little better and fail at something else. You learn from that failure and you try again.
Fail, grow, fail, grow, fail, grow. That is the life of an animation student. But embrace that! Without the failures, there is no growth!
So don’t be timid. Be bold in your choices! If you are learning how to animate, it doesn’t help you to just keep animating the same thing you already know you are good at. Try new things, hard things, and fail! Fail spectacularly!
If you are in a supportive learning environment like AM, we will help you turn those failures into your biggest growth spurts as an artist, and pretty soon you’ll be doing some awesome animation!
CARLOS: Do animation because you love it. This will help you endure many ups and downs, it will give you many wonderful surprises, through acting it will release great aspects of your personality, it will give you endless nights working that you won’t mind because of what it is you’ll be creating, it will keep you moving forward from dream to dream whatever those are.
Here’s to another 10 years! Post your memories at #AM10years
– The Animation Mentor Crew