I get asked this question all the time. In the past, the degree represented a comfortable entry to career. That’s not the case today so it makes sense for digital artists to ask the question.
The computer graphics (CG) industry isn’t the same as the medical industry or practicing law where a degree is just a requirement to get one's foot in the door. CG is a fairly new industry where its formal education isn’t a long-institutionalized thing. And while a degree is certainly valuable, it’s not necessarily a requirement for a successful career.
Value of an Art Degree
At this point in time, I measure the value of a CG degree in two ways: Professional value and personal value.
Professional valueis actually low. In my experience, I’ve never heard an employer reference my degree or discuss where I graduated from. And this is consistent with my professors’ warnings along with what I’ve observed among my co-workers over the years. Studios are much more concerned with the quality of a portfolio than with formal education. I’ve worked alongside graduates and non-graduates at the same studio. I’ve also seen valedictorian's struggle to find work.
One of the most talented artists I’ve ever worked with has been a one-man-CG-army since he was in his teens, without a degree. All that to say, an impressive body of work overshadows a degree.
On the other hand, my formal education has proven to be a tremendous personal value for my development. While I believe that everything I learned in the classroom can be found on the internet for free, the difference is that in the classroom it was served to me on a silver platter. What I learned in 21 months at the university would take me several years to learn by sifting through YouTube videos and forum threads. There’s also the comfort of trusting what I learned in the classroom. The internet is full of poor, free-of-charge instruction by which we have no way to determine its legitimacy aside from trial and error.
I first started to learn CG when I was 14. At that time I had a massive book of basic tutorials and the internet to learn from. Most of what I learned in those first few years had to be broken and re-learned the right waywhen I went to college. In other words: Self-teaching can be free but it’s like stumbling around in the dark.
Of course, formal education costs a ton of money. While the costs vary from school to school, the average animation degree costs about $160,000 ($40k x 4 years) for on-campus programs and about $56,000 ($7k x 8 semesters) for online programs. Understandably, not everyone has the means to pay for this or is willing to go into such debt. I was blessed to have parents that saved their whole marriage to gift my brother and I 4-years of college. Thankfully, as I mentioned before, an expensive degree is not a prerequisite for a successful career in the CG industry.
Noah Bradley, a talented concept painter, made some waves with his point-blank opinions about the cost of art school. While it’s directed more at traditional art education, it’s certainly correlates to digital art and is worth a read.
If you’re ready to spend big $
For those of you that have the financial means to pay for college, I’m going to list some solid schools that I’ve either worked with their graduates or heard positive things about from colleagues. Understand, this is not a comprehensive list but is just derived from my experience.
- Vancouver Film School: I’ve never worked with a VFS grad but I know they have an elite network of alumni. It’s arguably the Harvard of CG education. I’ve been told they won’t accept just anybody. I knew a classmate who was denied because his entry portfolio didn’t make the cut.
- Gnomon School of Visual Effects : Top-of-the-line CG education taught by industry professionals.
- Full Sail University : I am an alumni of Full Sail’s on-campus computer animation program. I highly value that experience as the fast-track for my CG development. They’re famous for their accelerated program: A 4-year-bachelor’s degree in 21 months. They have classes scheduled 24 hours of the day, of which I had a couple 1am-5am labs during my time there. I found the acceleration a benefit for the passionate, like myself, who couldn’t get enough CG. It also serves to weed out the impassioned, which paints a pretty realistic picture of what the industry is like - where the passionate succeed.
- Minneapolis College of Art & Design : I worked with several MCADians during my time at MAKE in Minneapolis. They were all extremely talented, some of which have gone on to animate at Disney ;and one is directing his first feature-length film for MGM.
- Savannah College of Art & Design : The “of Art and Design” schools seem to have a good reputation. Colin Levy, director of Sintel and former layout artist at Pixar, graduated from SCAD. Fun fact: He also happened to work at MAKE in Minneapolis before I was hired.
- FZD School of Design : This has become one of the most famous concept art schools since its founding in 2009.
If you’re NOT so ready to spend big $
As mentioned previously, the internet is at your disposal. And for the cost of a computer and internet access, you can quite literally teach yourself anything you want to know, including computer graphics.
This approach is the least expensive with the biggest learning curve: Google There are also much less-expensive alternatives to art school that teach CG more seriously.
- CG Cookie: [Elephant in the room] Surprise! WE are one of these alternatives. Our mission at CG Cookie includes becoming an affordable alternative to art school. With the launch of version 5.0 of our site, we launched Learning Flows that in many ways [will] mimic degree programs. At the moment, they’re still fairly new, so we admit that we’re not quite there yet, but we working hard to get there! And if you do the math, the cost of a CGC membership is a drop in the bucket compared to a formal art school.
- iAnimate: CGC instructor, Wayne Dixon, is an iA alumni. It’s an animation-centric program founded by former Animation Mentor, Jason Ryan, and utilizes livestream teaching more than pre-recorded lessons.
- Animation Mentor : This online animation school churns out very successful alumni , including the Blender Institute’s own Hjalti Hjalmarsson. Note: The school’s focus is animation, not other skills like modeling, texturing, etc.
- Pluralsight (formerly Digital Tutors) : This subscription-based site has an enormous library of CG training courses spanning nearly all creative applications.
- 3D Motive : Another subscription-based site with solid CG training courses taught by industry professionals.
Any kind of artistic or creative career is going to be successful based on one thing: The artist’s drive.
Drive will empower an aspiring artist to power through the trial-and-error approach of a self-taught “YouTube degree”. Drive is the catalyst that transforms an $80,000 education into stand-out skill; artistry; success. Without drive, you’ll just end up with a hobby or a piece of paper.
My class at Full Sail started with 87 people. 17 of those people graduated on time, and maybe 6 of the 17 have held steady jobs in the industry.
So before you ask yourself whether or not you should enroll in art school, make sure you can answer “yes” to the question: “Am I driven to succeed as a digital artist?”
"5 Big Reasons to Skip Private Art School" (by our own Jonathan Lampel!)