animator at work

Creative higher apprenticeships for gaming, VFX and animation skills

Working alongside industry partner, the NextGen Skills Academy is developing higher apprenticeships in computer games, VFX and animation to address specific skill sets lacking within these fields.

The apprenticeships, due to be rolled out this autumn, comprise Quality Assurance Technician (QAT), led by games developer Rebellion, and Junior 2D Artist and Assistant Technical Director (ATD), led by leading UK VFX houses Double Negative and Framestore respectively.

The higher apprenticeships, which are equivalent to the first two years of a degree, offer work-based learning programmes combining on-the-job training with studying for high-level qualifications. They will allow students to work and earn a decent wage while learning specific key skills and gaining the qualifications that prospective employers require to create a highly skilled workforce that can meet the future demands of their industries.

Both VFX apprenticeships feature on the skills shortage list as identified in research carried out by Creative Skillset, which worked with NextGen in building apprenticeship standards for this industry. They will provide extra entry routes into both 2D and 3D or more technical roles – by bridging the gap between the traditional informal runner and the formal degree routes.

The role of an assistant technical director is to provide a diverse series of technical support functions to ensure the smooth running of a VFX project. They are responsible for supporting and troubleshooting pipeline and workflow tools, providing technical assistance to creative departments, and managing data and resources. The higher apprentices will learn to use a variety of industry-standard graphical applications, scripting languages and operating systems, and become versed in skills such as project organisation and VFX craft.

The main tasks a Junior 2D Artist apprentice will cover are rotoscoping: basically isolating and removing an object from an image by drawing lines around it; prep: removing objects in the image that shouldn't be there, like safety wires and rigs from stunt shots; and compositing: pulling separate image elements together to create a final shot.

Framestore’s Amy Smith is lead employer in the development of the ATD apprenticeship.

“Initially we collated job descriptions from a number of employers that fed into the development of the ATD standard and also discussed the details of the standard as it came together,” she explains. “Finally, we sent out an electronic survey to the wider industry to get their input before submitting for formal review. The intention has always been to create an apprenticeship that delivers training in specific skills that are lacking across the VFX industry, and works in both large and small companies.”

“When we were designing the Junior 2D apprenticeship, we looked at our existing routes of entry and considered what each person would have experienced either before or in their first few years with us,” continues Chris Burn, Double Negative’s head of 2D and contributor to the Next Gen Skills Academy report.

“We tried to combine what both a degree student and a runner would experience and blend them into a perfect mix of on-the-job and formal training. Hopefully we've ended up with a fantastic opportunity that is really focused on developing a career in VFX.”

The objective of the VFX apprenticeships is two-fold: to address specific skill sets lacking within the industry – given that most education establishments currently only provide a fairly broad creative skills syllabus – and to attract talented people to join an industry that they may not have been aware of or been able to afford to train for.

“I really wanted to lead the design of this apprenticeship as it’s a great opportunity to create training that is very bespoke to our needs in high-end visual effects,” Burn says. “We are really keen to spot talented people, provide very focused training and watch how quickly our apprentices progress.”

“We are very enthusiastic about training our own entry-level staff in a truly employer-led and vocational way, as historically our industry has not always fitted with more academic methods of learning,” adds Smith. “We are seeking not only to improve the diversity of our workforce but also to reach students who may not have previously considered our niche industry.”

But it’s not only the visual effects industry that is still considered ‘niche’. In 2014, games software in the UK sold more than both music and video, and, unlike music and video sales, showed general growth. By 2018, the global games market is expected to be worth £113bn.

Within that, the UK is already a leading market. A recent report conducted by Develop magazine showed that globally the UK is the second best country for games development, with 22 studios featuring in the report’s top 100 list. But despite transparent economic facts, this commercial colossus is still not taken entirely seriously by many schools, colleges and, crucially, parents.

“I think a lot of parents don’t realise how professional the games industry is, and what fantastic career opportunities exist within it,” says Andy Robson, MD of Testology, one of the UK’s major UK video-game quality assurance organisations, and consultant on the employer steering group at NextGen.

“Parents often feel more comfortable guiding their children down the more traditional educational route of A levels and university rather than college courses and apprenticeships. But we know from research that if you want to work in games, following that route isn’t necessarily going to equip you with the right skills and knowledge for the roles that employers are trying to fill.”

Another popular misconception is that computer games jobs such as a QAT are merely convenient stepping-stones for entering the industry as, technically, one does not require specific qualifications.

“Some people wrongly think QA is the only way to get into the industry, rather than working on their portfolio of relevant hobby work in order to get into their area of true interest,” says Claire Timpany, recruitment manager at Rebellion, lead developer of the QAT apprenticeship. 

“This can make it hard to find new people dedicated to the field of QA itself, who want to push the quality of games and improve QA processes with new ideas,” she adds.

As games have become more complex, the role of QA is now much more important and not just from a bug-testing point of view. QA teams can offer very valuable feedback about gameplay, given the many hours they spend with a game – and the role actually requires much focus, commitment and attention to detail.

“Also it is definitely getting harder to attain an entry-level role in QA without any qualifications because the business is becoming more competitive,” says Claire. “Companies like qualifications because regardless of the subject, they show someone wants to learn, is willing to commit to a project and see it through to completion at a high standard.”

Cue the games QAT apprenticeship, which is being developed in order to set an industry-recognised standard of excellence in QA training and practice.

“As a games QA Tech apprentice you are assured that your employer is committed to providing everything required for you to successfully complete your apprenticeship – so even if you are at a very small company working on one game for one device, you will still get industry standard training and a standout CV,” explains Claire.

On completion of the games QAT apprenticeship a candidate will obviously be more attractive to employers looking for junior QA techs. Crucially they can also expect to be paid more as in the games industry pay is related to performance levels, not length of employment. A successful apprentice will be able to hit the ground running and will know the standards of professional behaviour expected of them, setting them apart from most entry-level staff.

And obviously the same support and advantages apply to both VFX apprenticeships.

“An apprentice can expect to receive a dedicated mentor and formative reviews at specified points during the process,” says Framestore’s Amy Smith.  “They will also get regular feedback and guidance on their work from supervisors and senior staff, access to internal training provision and other support on a case-by-case basis.”

While companies like Rebellion hope that the new initiative will lead to a specific games QA qualification, as opposed to current generic software testing qualifications, the development of these apprenticeships is not limited to just these three roles. If successful it is hoped that they will aid future development of more apprenticeships in other games and VFX roles. 

Testology’s Andy Robson hopes to see the development of many more apprenticeships across various disciplines within the games industry. “I also think that the skill sets needed should be introduced into the school curriculum,” he adds. “We should be providing better courses at colleges and universities, which provide relevant and up-to-date education that fits with the jobs that are available in the industry, just like NextGen’s Level 3 Diploma in games, animation and VFX skills.”
Meanwhile, as the games and VFX industries continue to expand, members of the NextGen consortium remain fully committed to supporting initiatives such as these higher apprenticeships.

As summarised in the words of Double Negative’s Chris Burn: “I'm looking forward to the day that one of our former apprentices wins the Oscar for VFX!”

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