The East Tennessee State University (ETSU) digital media program educates 300 undergrads in four key areas of concentration: animation, VFX, visualization, and game development, and according to department chair Marty Fitzgerald, game development and animation are the majors that typically attract incoming freshman students. However, once they’ve settled in, the reality can be very challenging. Some students realize they don’t enjoy it as much as they thought they would and change majors, or some, for example, may discover that they really like related disciplines like modeling or video. “Part of what we do is say that there’s a lot more to this than just game development and animation,” says Fitzgerald. “We need people that do lighting, texturing, modeling, rigging, level design, and more.”
Fitzgerald says the program also has students in pursuit of careers outside of media and entertainment. Some arrive with undergraduate architecture degrees but are missing the digital media component. In another case, a student set on a career in criminal justice wanted to do video work for the FBI. In each instance, ETSU was able to help. “We try to be a little bit flexible because everyone is different,” says Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald says student projects begin by defining a goal—the desire to create something. They’ll look at references, like a collection of photos. If they want to create an animation, they may shoot a reference video. For a multi-shot video, they might storyboard. If it’s single shot, they may go to work blocking it out. For a model, the students may rough it out and decide what the workflow would be. There are also a number of questions which need to be answered. “If we’re modeling, do we want to start right in ZBrush with a hi-res sculpt and see where we go, or do we want to start with a low poly base?” Fitzgerald asks. “Depending upon what we think, we may start with photography. We’re doing more of that lately where you take a whole bunch of photos of something, generate a hi-res mesh, and then get it down to a low poly image with quad and what everyone can deal with. If it’s a game project, it’s probably a team of students with us assigning roles. There’s a certain amount of creative discussion about where we want it to go and how we want it to feel. As for project roles, we want to determine the animator, the set designer and environment, followed by the standard group project factors like due dates, how we plan to make project deadlines, things like that. It’s fairly standard issue. No one wants to work at something they don’t like or are not good at, but every group has that person who doesn’t do the work versus the people who always do. The labs are open 24/7 with card access, so you know who’s here at 4am and who isn’t.”