The DAVE School is virtually leading the way when it comes to training top-notch animators and designers
Career colleges come in all shapes and sizes. Many are tucked alongside hectic strip malls or in busy urban arenas. And then there’s the DAVE School in Orlando, which is nestled in the back lot of Universal Studios Florida. How many colleges can boast having a theme park literally in their backyard? How many career colleges can boast a bevy of graduates working for major movie studios and animation houses? When it comes to the DAVE School, it’s way more than location, location, location … there’s a certain novelty and charm to this eight-year old Digital Animation & Visual Effects School. (Get it? D-A-V-E?)
From the minute you walk in the door, it would be easy to assume you just stumbled in to a teenage boy’s lair. Every conceivable space is covered with Star Wars or Star Trek paraphernalia and random action figures. It’s like one big green room for gamers. A geek’s paradise.
It’s exactly the kind of welcome mat that school director Jeff Scheetz always wanted to put out. In the infancy of the DAVE School, he set his sites on creating a school he’d want to attend – and, more importantly, to fill an untapped niche in the FX industry.
“There was a time when people thought it was ludicrous to teach somebody how to blow up a space ship because there’s no real work in that,” Scheetz said. “It’s computer animation and there is a lot of that going on. I have blown up a lot of space ships and to say that is not a job skill is insane. You could turn on your TV tonight and find a science fiction TV series where something is going to blow up in space.”
Disintegrated spaceships notwithstanding, Scheetz and wife Anne have proudly displayed a gigantic map of the world in the lobby that’s riddled with push-pins representing each students’ hometown – ranging from Africa to South America to Europe. Clearly, if you’re interested in computer animation, the DAVE School is like the mother ship calling you home.
From humble beginnings eight years ago, the DAVE School has seen nearly 800 graduates pass through their doors, according to Scheetz. In its former life, the facility housed a local UPN affiliate that moved locations. But Scheetz, his wife and their team transformed the cavernous area in to what Scheetz likes to call a “working studio”. And speaking of cavernous, the DAVE School started off as the Computer Animation & Visual Effects School, but Scheetz didn’t care for the name The CAVE School. “CAVE did not have a ring to it,” Scheetz said.
The DAVE School’s 9,000 square-foot facility includes two labs, an enormous shooting stage with green screen, and a state of the art motion capture system. But the first thing students tend to notice is the layout of the school designed to look like a futuristic animation house. “This is the only school I know of that’s geared for production,” said William Vaughan, Director of Industry Relations. “It’s not anything like a classroom.”
And he’s right. From day one, students are taught to learn, work and play in a company-like atmosphere. “By the end of the fourth quarter, instructors are almost like your boss,” Scheetz said. “It’s like you’re working at a company doing digital effects production or animation production. Yes, you’re a student … but you’re also a professional. Professionals don’t miss deadlines.”
Throughout the course of the year, students bring their own expertise to the table. Some are skilled in lighting techniques, others in graphic design. The list goes on. Mix in the instructors – a veritable who’s who in their specialized field – and you’ve got a recipe for creative success.
“Some students actually come with a background in film so they can help us out with camera angles and lighting and such,” said 2008 graduate Jessica Wolff. “Other people come from artistic backgrounds – people who like to draw and sketch. I do a little bit of clay modeling so that helps. Plus, we all have different experiences and backgrounds – some from the military, some fresh out of high school, some from different countries from all over the world.”
“It’s awesome. The environment is great,” said David Blemur, another 2008 graduate.
”When I came here, my biggest challenge was the fast pace. It took me two months to get into the pace, but once I got the tune of things, everything just became perfect. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
On the day before school wrapped for 2008, students were feverishly working to complete a music video for Brian May, lead guitarist for the legendary rock band Queen. “It’s a rock-star version of the song ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked”, said Scheetz. Nearly every shot involved some aspect of post-production such as creating city streets and skylines. An extensive storyboard was created early on in the school year which students dutifully followed, each student working on separate elements of the piece.
Kerry Ellis, who stars in the Broadway version of Wicked, also stars in the music video. Not only did students have the opportunity to work side-by-side with Ellis, they spent several days shooting her in front of a green screen. Scheetz and team had Ellis suspended from multiple harnesses so she could indeed defy gravity in much of the video. From shooting and editing to design and execution of over 100 digital effects, DAVE School students got to do it all.
Blemur mentioned he enjoyed the team atmosphere that gave everyone a chance to show off their skills. “We just finished the group project, which was a lot of work,” said Blemur. “You see who you are when the going gets tough. In the end, though, everybody came together.”
“The kids are hungry,” Scheetz said. “The good ones want to learn something. They want to do something really different and decided to go with something that is not considered a very traditional occupation. Most of them are very creative and driven. You’re going to need that to make it through this program.”
In a little under a year, the DAVE School prides itself on getting students familiar with all the intricate details of “synthetic movie making”. Students graduate with a custom-made, professional demo reel that highlights their work. “It’s all about the demo reel,” Scheetz said. He then proceeded to name-drop an impressive list of companies where DAVE School graduates have landed.
Scheetz said alumni have worked all over the world at well-known companies such as Dreamworks, Sony Imageworks, ILM and hometown favorite Walt Disney Feature Animation. Graduates have also gone on to work on animated projects, such as Madagascar 2 and Kung-Fu Panda, as well as popular television shows with extensive visual effects, including Lost and 24.
Whatever you do, don’t confuse drawing with computer animation. And don’t confuse the DAVE School with any other film and video school. “Me and most of my staff have no drawing skills whatsoever,” Scheetz said. “But on computers, we can create anything we can think of.”
Scheetz said there are a majority of colleges offering computer animation as a carrot that’s dangled at the end of a four-year program. He said traditional illustration and graphic media programs make drawing a prerequisite, which doesn’t really seem necessary. Sort of by skipping that step, the DAVE School can offer a program in one year vocationally.
“In computer animation, you are basically creating a virtual world and you are building virtual things,” Scheetz said. “We are teaching people how to work at a company that does (just that).”
The school has been recognized by the Florida Department of Education’s Commission for Independent Education and has a wall of press clippings and magazine articles touting its unique wares. But the school’s true claim to fame is the student projects and graduate success stories, both prominently featured on the school’s website, www.daveschool.com.
“The whole year has just flown by so quickly,” Wolff said. “It’s just been challenging, but also fascinating. It’s been a blast. I tell people this is my Disney World. If someone said, ‘Jessica, you just won the SuperBowl, where are you going to go?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, the DAVE School!’”
“I’ve never been this happy before in my entire life,” Blemur said. “There are two things I don’t regret doing: learning to dance salsa and being here. That’s what I always tell people.”
Hey, James Cameron? Are you listening? An animator and a salsa dancer … what more do you need?