Doncaster College and University Centre, part of the DN Colleges Group, and in particular its VFX, 3D animation and games courses, have been focused on a particular remit over the last few years: to shrink the gap between industry and education.
For too long, graduates on these particular kinds of courses across the UK have completed their studies only to find that the industry they’ve focused on doesn’t see them as the finished article. With too much emphasis on academia, instead of the practical skills employers demanded, colleges needed to step up their own game. With Escape Technology’s help, the group committed to doing something about this.
The story begins two decades earlier: “I started in the industry in 1992,” explains John Stopforth, Director of Curriculum for Creative Digital Technology for DN Colleges Group. “I joined as an 18-year-old systems engineer… but had never touched a computer in my life. I came at it with little or no experience but a large dose of confidence and a positive attitude and said ‘Yeah, I can do that!’ I started working around Silicon Graphics mainly, in the CAD market, using things like CATIA, Alias, Wavefront and Sun Microsystems. Essentially we were providing hardware spec, software spec and then bringing the two together on site, providing training and then supporting the client. Very much like today’s Escape Technology model actually.”
“It was a great time to have entered the sector,” John continues. “It was CG in its infancy. At that time we were also selling into education and everyone was getting these Silicon Graphics computers and learning how to use Power Animator to model. And the key thing was, these people in education were learning how to use these tools at the exact same time as people in industry.”
This parity didn’t last. As the costs to keep at the cutting edge of this emerging creative discipline spiralled a delta emerged between industry and education emerged. Education facilities simply didn’t have the funds to continually invest at this high level, causing the gap between the two to widen and continue to do so for many years.
During the early to mid noughties John’s career began to shift towards the creative side, with time spent at DNEG, and on projects for Eurocom, Revolution Software and Sumo Digital. It was here that he noticed a repeating phenomena: he found himself increasingly called onto urgent jobs to improve the work of recent graduates. “The guys coming from university had not developed the skill of managing scene data. They were loose in the way that they modelled, they put far too much into the geometry or texture banks. They didn’t understand depth and they weren’t using the level of detail needed in logarithms to call up the data sets correctly.”
What was now clear to John, and the industry as a whole, was that students were being taught the principles and how to use the tools, but without the ability to apply them within a professional data pipeline.
With a view to addressing the situation, John joined Doncaster in 2007 as a part-time lecturer teaching Maya. With his industry background and understanding of workflow and pipeline, John soon saw his students becoming more successful and his courses growing. As a result, he became the Programme Manager for the whole area.
Back in 2015. John was surprised to find himself in a meeting speaking to the crème de la crème of the UK VFX and post-production industry. This who’s who of the industry were acting as an advisory board, and were looking to open up new pathways for talented technicians to enter the industry. Their aim – to develop strong creatives who could also work within, and most importantly, understand a professional pipeline and infrastructure – was very much aligned to what John had also been championing.
Doncaster College invited this industry advisory group to participate in setting up a tendering process, and also to potentially help fund the initiative. Its goal - to define the scope of, specify, purchase and install a professional grade studio within a studio at an educational institution - as John puts it, “If ILM were setting up a new studio, what would they need?”
The driving force behind this initiative was Sheffield City Region’s (SCR) Global Innovation Corridor (GIC) scheme, which John and the team at Doncaster bidded for and successfully won. The SCR GIC's scheme is focused on R&D assets and skilled specialisms within the region, to create a magnet for people and talent, industry and innovators. This was a natural fit for the SCR GIC scheme as it recognised that in order to create and retain digital talent in the area, the region needed a recognised centre of excellence that could compete with the London talent drain. Doncaster already had a shortfall when it came to filling vacancies for digital roles, and this initiative would give local talent the facilities to develop all the skills the area needed moving forward.
Escape worked closely with the college’s industry advisory board to firstly define some generic layouts which were broadly within the scope of the budget. John used these to design four courses that could be successfully delivered using them. This facility layout and the four courses became the nucleus of what’s now known as VFX Academy/The Studios.
As part of the process, Lightforge Academy was created in Doncaster. Lightforge works with industry partners to react to what’s currently needed and runs short courses (which are often live projects) to align student talent with those emerging needs - in essence, an industry finishing school. On a campus where industry interaction is now the norm, this is another feather in Doncaster College’s cap.
Escape Technology was one of the companies to respond to the tender. “We were blown away when we saw Escape’s proposal,” says John. “From start to finish, the document just put us at ease. It had everything you’d want from a service provider. The solution they offered gave us such flexibility and it meant we could deliver within the budget.”
As per the brief, the solution itself was very closely modelled on a commercial facility.
Escape needed to design and install a new 100 Gb Mellanox network backbone for the system, with multiple 10, 25 or 40 Gb connections as needed. This allowed significant bandwidth into the Pixstor storage solution, designed as a deep vault and able to cope with the 4K work that the students produce.
The studios comprise five classrooms with 15 seats in each. Each workstation needed to be a powerful all-rounder, so HP Z4s were specified with RTX 2070 SUPERs running on 24 Gen-10 i9x cores. “They’re supremely quick,” confirms John. “We used to get complaints from learners not being able to open Unreal Engine files, large format Adobe Premiere projects, Maya scenes or ZBrush scenes, not to mention Substance Painter and Designer; all that went away the moment they started on these Z4s.”
John also introduced gaming chairs, curved desks and floating monitors (including at least one per classroom as a Pure Colour monitor), so the classrooms would feel like a commercial studio as well as operate like one.
An on-premises render farm was chosen over cloud-based rendering, firstly because it’s much easier to budget for, and secondly because burst rendering due to deadlines is rarely needed at an educational level. The Doncaster College render farm comprises 1,600 physical cores and is the largest ever supplied by Escape Technology to a single-site education customer.
The whole project saw the Escape team working end-to-end to deliver this vision. At each stage Escape’s specialist engineers were on hand either in person or remotely to ensure that not only was the solution designed to meet the brief comprehensively, but that it also delivered on its promise in practice.
The team transformed the existing space into a commercial-standard VFX and games studio, from initial loose layouts and nuts & bolts such as discrete wiring, through to the complex full storage, network and desktop installations. Doncaster College, and the region as a whole has become a focal point for digital talent. And with an ongoing support contract meaning that our experts are just a call or short train journey away at all times, the college and its students can also be confident that all of the technology continues to operate at its full potential, all of the time.
With Doncaster being much easier to get to than you’d imagine (it’s only an hour and a half from London out of King’s Cross), the college is presenting a strong case for attracting students to its level 3, 4, 5 and 6 courses from the capital rather than losing them to it.
Teaching talent can also play a more significant part too, now that the college mirrors industry so closely, John adds: “Now when I talk to people like Framestore, BlueZoo Animation or Axis Studios, they immediately understand what we’ve got, and it’s made it easy to run master classes with them. Their pipeline matches our pipeline, so they can just talk about the way they do things.”
John shared one of the few upsides of the pandemic has been our willingness and ability to embrace video calls and remote working. Master classes can be run without the need for industry figures to be live in the classroom itself, making it possible for a much greater input from a wider range of industry professionals than ever before. Once again, this speaks to the high levels of interaction between industry and education that Doncaster is facilitating.
As one of Escape’s largest education projects to date, and with a great deal of the install being done around lockdowns, most of which in the planned summer break period, both teams worked closely together to deliver the project. John had one final comment to share: “I was so impressed that the Escape team came in with such a low impact on site. They gave us a build time and actually delivered it in that build time. We shut down the studio for two weeks, and we were back up and running in week three. It was great.”