Vancouver Film School puts the spotlight on software skills

When a skyscraper-sized flood crashes through Manhattan in The Day After Tomorrow, the realistic visual effects were created with the help of Houdini software, from a Toronto-based company, Side Effects Software.

“A lot of those solutions for how water would react in a situation like that were directly related to the operators in that studio using Houdini,” according to Larry Bafia, who heads the Vancouver Film School’s 3D Animation & Visual Effects Department.

Now, thanks to a new course at the school, students of animation can obtain intensive training in the use of Houdini, as well as in Nuke, from D2 Software.

Houdini is a visual effects and animation program, while Nuke is “compositing” software, which allows users to combine a number of visual elements into a single image.

The 16-week Vancouver Film School course is the result of a partnership with D2 Software, Side Effects Software and HP Canada. The Houdini and Nuke certification program is intended for digital artists who have already completed the school’s 3D Animation and Visual Effects Program or an equivalent program. Those with industry experience can also apply.

Bafia said in an interview that there is a shortage of artists competent in Houdini and Nuke.

“We found in the industry that there is a demand, and one of the things that we try to do here is respond directly to the needs of industry,” Bafia said.

“Based on talking to a number of members of our advisory board, which includes some fairly big visual effects houses in Hollywood . . . as well as a number of employers in Canada, including C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures in Toronto, for example, we’ve found that there’s a demand for people that know and understand the program Houdini,” he said.

“The biggest need right now is to find experienced operators, so that they can actually have a well-functioning group.”

Houdini is among the more powerful pieces of software in the world of visual effects, Bafia said.

“The way it is structured is very different from other off-the-shelf software. There’s never any one direct path to an answer, and that’s why it’s very valuable in visual effects, because part of the journey of discovery is what you can do with an image creates things that we haven’t seen before,” he said. “It’s sort of the thinking man’s software.”

Aliza Sorotzkin, the training and school accounts manager with Side Effects, said in an interview that the company is providing the course with the Houdini software, as well as support.

“Vancouver Film School has a fantastic reputation and provides top-notch training for the Canadian and U.S. markets, in addition to others,” Sorotzkin said. “There’s just a huge demand for Houdini skills in the industry. This kind of training will help provide the right talent for our customers.”

As well, Side Effects itself would “absolutely” consider hiring graduates of the program, she said.

While demand for Houdini skills fluctuates as projects come and go, the prospects are good for competent people.

“Generally speaking, good Houdini talent, those are people who, when the project’s over, they don’t let those people go,” Sorotzkin said. “They keep them on.”

HP Canada’s product manager for workstations and displays, Maria Del-Rio Arbuckle, said the company’s new HP xw8200 workstation, which uses 64-bit Intel Xeon processors, is ideal for the school’s new course.

Vancouver Film School was looking for a platform that would work for a range of courses, each with its own technical requirements, and the HPxw8200 fits the bill.

“It’s probably our most robust and most scaleable workstation on the market,” Del-Rio Arbuckle said. “We do a lot of lab testing, not only with our chassis, but with all the graphic add-ons that we put into the system.”

The 8200, which can accommodate up to five internal hard disk drives, has seven expansion slots.

The VFS’s Bafia said that the school has already had considerable interest in the course, from graduates, current students and professionals looking to expand their tool sets. Start dates for 2006 are Feb. 27, June 26 and Oct. 23.

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