Lunch & Learn Recap: Keeping Up with the Digital Toolset

Alexandra Drosu / August 12, 2019

Lunch & Learn Recap / no comments

On Aug. 6, the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Games & Animation came to the Guild to discuss how you can continue to learn and sharpen skills without feeling overwhelmed by the ever-changing landscape of technology. Directors of Education and Instructors Beau Janzen and Max Dayan identified common road blocks in learning and ways to overcome them, underscoring the importance of more efficient learning and where to find the right resources.

What are some challenges that can make you fall behind in technology?

  • Complacency and comfort – The mindset that what you’re using gets the job done!
    • Instead, remove your personal attachment from the toolset because it makes it harder to adapt. Transfer your attachment from the tool to the work itself.
  • Lack of time for training.
    • It’s an ongoing process so try not to look at it as short sprints that you have to accomplish in a limited time frame. You’re always learning!
  • Feeling overwhelmed – Technology is changing so fast, how can I keep up?
    • It’s overwhelming for everybody – not just you! Keep in mind that you’re not going back to square one. The buttons or semantics are different but the core of artistry – light, color, surface properties – transcends software. The knowledge you bring from other packages does not go away.

Strategies for taking on new tools

Many artists have taught themselves software, grinding against it as you try to figure out how to use it. Depending on the tutorial or resources, you may not be seeing the full picture. You might get frustrated or depressed because you haven’t achieved what you set out to do which can also lead to burnout. Here, are a few ways to tackle learning new software without getting overwhelmed.

  • Establish small goals. Don’t overscope! It’s killed so many people’s passion.
  • Set a schedule. A few hours a day, 1 to 3 days a week adds up fast. Use your lunch breaks, for example. Some time Management techniques include the Pomodoro Technique, an interval timer with breaks, that helps prevent burnout: 25 minutes of work with a 5-minute break. Try to learn one software skill in each interval. Another option is Timeboxing, where you set a specific amount of time to complete a task before you begin. It enhances creativity and curbs perfectionism by creating a sense of urgency.
  • Learn to read software. Look for the organization of software elements (UI, Editor, Menus) that helps you instinctually find tools. When memorization alone fails, understanding structure can help solve problems.

How to use of your time economically?

  • Plan your approach.
  • Assemble your resources – help files, simple tutorials. Stay away from long tutorials and focus on one aspect of the software. For example, how to use the nodes in Houdini?
  • Create a system for notes and documentation—Microsoft Word, notepad, Evernote. Try to stop yourself from moving past something that you don’t understand right away or seems “broken”.

What kind of projects should you focus on while learning new tools?

Consider abstract versus project-based experiences, and choose which one is best for you. Abstract exercises help you work on concepts in a very rudimentary sense to get a clear view of how principles work. While project-based exercises allow you to learn concepts in the context of accomplishing a specific goal. Try to find a balance between the two.

Abstract Experiences

  • Pros
    • Strips away complexity and gives a clear view of root-level concepts.
    • Gives a clean cause and effect result to see how individual variables work.
  • Cons
    • Lack of integration into a project.
    • Don’t see how the system works.

Project-Based Experiences

  • Pros
    • Forces you to move through the overall process so you can see work in the context of a pipeline.
    • Gives you a goal to drive your work – interest and motivation.
  • Cons
    • Narrow focus of the concepts involved; once the goal is reached, tools aren’t explored further.
    • Can be overly ambitious if you don’t know what’s hard; it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew.

What else will help you successfully learn new tools?

Set up a reasonable (and potentially expandable) goal and work towards it.  As difficult topics come up, work through them in an abstract sense to get a clear sense of how they work.

Allow yourself time to play with the tools. As an artist, you need to absorb the tools on a personal level. When in production, you don’t have time to play with them. Playing with software can help you connect with it and even discover happy accidents when you’re not overly focused on a specific outcome.

Investigate the unknown features. If you find a tool, attribute or system you don’t understand, research it. Maybe do an abstract exercise. You will benefit from finding out the function behind that button you always ignore.  Don’t have black holes in your knowledge!

Teach someone else (for yourself). Take a topic you struggle with and break it down into a lesson form. Create an outline or bullet points as if you were teaching or explaining the process to someone else. It’s a methodology to capture knowledge and retain it.

Test, test, test! Don’t tackle a huge project – find simple things and understand them. Short exercises build repetition and muscle memory.  It can teach you many new skills, while you also get faster at the same process. Remember to identify simple goals and objectives.

Take written notes. In-program annotations (Maya, Houdini, Nuke) can be a great way to remind yourself how to use the tools. Also, check out organizational software!

Use your network of colleagues. Get input from knowledgeable colleagues to help design a solid plan of attack for learning. Perspective from your friends, who are well versed in a certain tool, can give “real world” insights.

Leverage software companies. Follow them on YouTube. They also often have great training resources on their websites but keep in mind that demos typically make their tools seem abnormally easy! Software companies might also be willing to offer introductory training sessions for groups of people (user groups).

Take advantage of nerds and geeks. One of the best resources is the obsession of others. Leverage the research and obsessions on the internet to learn and be inspired. Two great examples: entagma.com, thebookofshaders.com.

Consider structured education. Curriculum is already set for you so the foundations are done in the right order. You also have the ability to ask questions and receive mentorship.

Other resources to explore:

  • Blogs
  • Social media groups – discord, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
  • Artist communities
  • CG societies or professional groups
  • Workshops
  • User groups

 

 

 

 

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