May 1, 2006 6:00 AM, By S. D. Katz
Software-based training helps production artists hone their skills.
Software-based training for production hasn't always been cool. It's taken 10 years for software companies to realize that helping customers learn to use their products is an opportunity, not a duty. Now, in 2006, there's a new wave of training products, and companies offering training content, for digital artists. It arrives on podcasts, streaming video, DVDs, and even in HD — and the production quality and presenters are better than ever. Today, it's possible to develop high-level production skills without ever going to class, although even that experience — without the fraternities and sororities — is replicated at online training sites such as Pixel Corps.
There are two types of training: software-based and skill-based, meaning you can learn the tools and features in Photoshop, or you can learn photo retouching techniques using Photoshop. Right now, most publishers are providing more software training than skill training products. The greatest selection of training titles (with considerable overlap) is available for the most popular software programs. I believe there's a ready audience for information on cinematography, lighting, and visual effects processes and techniques, as well as traditional art and design skills. Hopefully we will see publishers respond to this opportunity in the future.
So here it is: the 2006 guide to training. Given the range of available titles, these are by necessity short reviews of noteworthy publishers, along with specific standout videos, books, and online training. The rating system is ad hoc: For instance, there are many Photoshop training materials, but only a few on encoding, so it was necessary to scale the comparisons accordingly. If there is useful information on a rarely covered topic, but the presentation is less than perfect, I recommend it anyway. In the end, it's about learning, not being entertained.
TT pretty much invented high-end VHS and DVD training. In the late '90s, Brian Maffitt decided After Effects users could use a comprehensive 10-video series, a risky idea since at the time a three-VHS set was considered in-depth training. But Brian's encyclopedic approach was a hit, and this essentially launched Total Training. TT was also able to form a close relationship with Adobe, and until recently, that was the basis of its curriculum. The company has always been the trendsetter for software training, consistently offering the best presenters and production and the most comprehensive coverage of Adobe's most popular applications.
New for TT is training in HD. Titles created since the middle of 2005 are HD (the presenters, not the screenshots). Go check out an HD sample lesson from the TT site at the Guru Lounge — it's stunning. TT has its own customized player that you install on your hard drive along with the project files. (Customized players are one of the big trends in training.) The project files for Photoshop CS2 required approximately 600MB of space, not a big problem with 200Gb drives everywhere.
The TT player is the most sophisticated of the various training players provided by publishers and has a number of useful navigation features, such as separate drop-down menus for Lessons and Topics so you can quickly select what to study. QuickTime movies are easily navigated; a running time indicator lets you use the QT time slider to zero in on exactly the place you want to go. There is also a bookmark function on the left side of the player where you can store specific points in time for review at a later time.
Lately, Maffitt, TT's creative director, has been indulging his producer/writer ambitions with even more elaborate sets, costumes, and graphics. TT productions are by far the most flamboyant in the industry. Even if you don't appreciate Maffitt's sense of fun, the majority of the lessons are still shots of the screen with commentary — and TT does this very well.
I have viewed a large number of the Total Training titles over the years and have never found them to be anything less than first rate. While TT is finally getting some competition, this is still the premier training publisher. However, it does tend to emphasize overall software training rather than skill training; for example, retouching in Photoshop is not something it would cover at this point. Fortunately, other companies are answering this need. If you are a beginner, intermediate, or experienced graphic artist, TT is the first place to look for training materials. TT may be a little more expensive than the competitors; however, the cost of training is a bargain since it can be the foundation for a career if you are motivated. Highly recommended — excellent information and presentation of core 2D software applications.
Digital Media Training Series (DMTS) is one of the new aggressive and innovative training companies located in New York. Like TT, it emphasizes quality and provides training using its own player. However, DVD material plays from the disc, and only the tutorial files have to be downloaded. Overall, the quality of the instruction is very good; however, the audio levels on the Photoshop CS2 disk varied quite a bit even within a single lesson. This is not a major problem, but it's the type of thing TT never gets wrong.
DMTS has general outline courses but specializes in project-based training. This is a hybrid of skill training and feature training and tends to be more interesting than simply watching an expert demonstrate all the tools and menus. My experience with three of the DMTS products is that the projects are very simple and less about developing a skill than making learning features more engaging. This is a good thing, but necessarily aimed at beginner to intermediate users. DMTS has a wide range of titles, including most Apple and Adobe applications, plus training for Avid, Sony Z1U, Flash MX, Dreamweaver, Canon GL2, Panasonic AG-DVX100, and Windows XP. By way of comparison, DMTS emphasizes digital video training while Lynda.com (reviewed later in the article) emphasizes desktop publishing and web design. However, the product lines overlap slightly.
Magnet Media also publishes Zoom In, a DVD quarterly with tutorials and interviews with top industry professionals.
Here is another company that is expanding its base with the goal of providing comprehensive Adobe training. Software Cinema has been around for several years and is best known for its Photoshop series, but it also offers DVDs on Corel Painter, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign. The publisher offers general introductory courseware but also focuses on particular skills such as portrait painting in Corel and photo retouching. Recently, it has moved into providing full sets of training DVDs for CS2.
Software Cinema also provides Adobe Photoshop Training Camp in various locations around the country (Boston, Dallas, Houston, and New York). Most of the trainers are well known in their fields — for example, Katrin Eismann, whose books on retouching and restoration are standards in the field.
While there are good tricks and general practices to be found in Advanced Retouching by Jane Conner-ziser, the target audience is family portrait artists using Photoshop. The intermediate- to advanced-level course is not aimed specifically at video artists, but it does offer an in-depth look at masking and image editing tools. A much shorter CD, Retouching Portraits in Photoshop with Kevin Ames, covers monitor calibration. Ames is a very good narrator; with this intermediate-level disk, you can learn a great deal about the process of image editing in a couple of hours.
The absolute standout DVD for serious Photoshop users is Image Restoration Repair and Enhancement by Katrin Eismann. Her book Restoration and Retouching is the bible on the subject, and the DVD is great. This is a complete retouching course for Photoshop users at any level and offers many tips and techniques that will improve your work substantially.
Software Cinema's varied offerings are very good, with touring workshops, DVDs, and CDs, as well as a new online service, Workshops on Demand. This online training makes selected DVD titles available as streaming video for broadband connections. The streaming is of high quality and played instantly through my cable modem. Recommended.
Lynda Weinman is an instructor and author who has been covering digital imaging techniques and software since the early '90s. Lynda.com offers books, CDs, and online training. Unlike the other publishers mentioned above, Lynda.com's software titles focus largely on desktop publishing and digital video — primarily Adobe and Apple software, but also a few 3D applications. The majority of the titles provide general coverage of software features aimed at beginner and intermediate users. Although some online training is sold by individual title, Lynda.com also offers a membership that includes an entire library of dozens of titles and software applications. This is a great deal for intermediate and expert users who have questions about a few features in many different applications. Sample movies from every title in the library are available on the site. Highly recommended for beginner and intermediate users.
Class on Demand
This is one of the older publishers of training materials, and it specializes in digital video, motion graphics, and 3D animation. The offerings are a mixed bag. A Sorenson Squeeze DVD with host Ben Waggoner provides no-frills production and is encoded to play on a set-top player rather than a DVD-ROM with a custom player. In spite of this limitation, the information is good and a big time-saver for anyone using Sorenson Squeeze for the first time. However, an older title called DVD FYI, an introduction to the DVD specification, largely consists of a talking head.
Class on Demand's titles are Windows-centric and usually decently produced, with well-known presenters and expert users. The publisher offers many training titles for 3ds Max, Lightwave (more than 30 DVDs), Toaster, In-Sync SpeedRazor, Avid, Pinnacle, Sony Vegas, and Canopus, as well as Premiere, FCP, and Photoshop. This is a good place to find 3D training materials. Recommended because there is little competition for the titles it features.
Gnomon Workshop/Gnomon Online
The Gnomon School of Visual Effects is the only brick-and-mortar visual effects school in the United States — at least the only one that is not part of some other university program. Essentially a vocational school founded by visual effects artist Alex Alvarez, Gnomon specializes in high-level software and traditional design training for artists preparing for a career in visual effects. The school offers Gnomon Workshop (DVD training) and Gnomon Online for students who cannot relocate to Los Angeles for onsite training. I'm a big fan of the Gnomon Workshop DVDs because, first, they feature excellent artists and, second, they include a series of titles on the subject of production art. Right now Gnomon is the only publisher providing DVD training in this area.
The Gnomon Workshop library includes titles covering a wide selection of topics in Maya, Zbrush, and other software programs; however, that is not unique. What sets the Workshop apart are DVDs by artists such as Ryan Church (Star Wars), Syd Mead, and other similarly respected traditional designers and illustrators. There is simply no other source for this type of training unless you enroll in an art school such as SVA on the East Coast or the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Gnomon Workshop DVDs are very much like sitting behind an artist while he or she works. If you are a young artist who needs a foundation in essential techniques, you should consider the Gnomon Workshop DVD series. Highly recommended for its excellent Maya training but especially for its art and illustration DVDs.
Here's a new idea: build an international, online team of more than 1,000 artists; teach them visual effects skills like matchmoving, modeling, compositing, rotoscoping, etc.; and connect them in a virtual pipeline. Pixel Corps is a San Francisco-based online training site with exactly that mission. Artists from all over the world have access to hundreds of hours of training on very specific effects skills, along with software discounts, and a community of like-minded people to share ideas and questions with. This is skill-based training one step removed from the more rigid Maya, XSI requirements of Los Angeles, taught by professionals. Definitely worth a trip to the site. Recommended for the community approach to learning visual effects.
Single titles of interest
DVD has allowed entrepreneurs to enter the game. This has inspired a few interesting micro publishers to enter the market with only one or two titles. Here are two that may be of interest.
This series consists of two titles for indie first-timers — demonstrating the Sony HC1 and the Z1U/FX1. The DVDs are approximately 100 minutes each and are frankly the slickest training DVDs I've seen. The look is high-end corporate video, and it would not surprise me to find out that Sony pitched in. This is a general introduction to these prosumer cameras and a bit pricey, but certainly the fastest way to learn and remember all the key features.
Hollywood Camera Work
Per Holmes locked himself up for a long time to make this extremely comprehensive course in staging, editing, and shot flow. He does this without actors by demonstrating the exhaustive staging examples with Maya mannequins that slide from position to position with a 3D camera and a dolly, boom, and crane that are visible in the shot. Diagrams and full-set scenes are compared with the final resulting scenes with the digital mannequins.
There are five DVDs with nine hours of material, and there is no question that this was a huge amount of work, or that it is a very thorough treatment of shot flow. In fact, it can be a bit overwhelming, so it's best watched over a period of time. While the overall vocabulary of Hollywood decoupage is shown and an approach to design recommended, there is a studio/soap opera feel to the cinematography. The choreography and overall framing is a bit stiff, but it's up to the user to impose a level of art on what are ultimately mechanical solutions. An extremely useful primer on directing the camera.
Some books have either become standard texts over the years or will be very soon. Here are a few of them.
- Creating Motion Graphics With After Effects by Chris and Trish Meyer
- Shot by Shot by Steven D. Katz (OK, I had to do it)
- Directing Actors by Judith Weston
- MatchMoving by Tim Dobbert (Yes, it's new, but it's very good)
- The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams
- The Screenwriter's Bible (Third Edition) by Dave Trottier
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