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Climbing Barefoot Up the Razor Edge of Application Updates

I'm going to talk about how to stay on top of your key applications as they evolve. Our main software tools now have a significant number of updates and upgrades each year. This can be disconcerting, especially with interface changes and workflow modifications. It's gotten to be a serious consideration.

But before I do that I want to just say a few words about the venerable institution, Rhythm and Hues. John Hughes is a longtime friend of mine, and I have enormous respect for him. He's a smart businessman and has built a global footprint for R&H, taking advantage of their U.S. expertise as well as lower-priced labor and various international subsidies opportunities. From my perspective, R&H has done a lot of things right. And still, here they are in trouble. As I was about to file this blog, R&H filed for bankrupcy, closing its doors. As I understand it the employees all got personal phone calls asking them not to come to work. Apparently the attempts to rescue them fell through. I am deeply saddened by this and send my condolences to John and his entire crew. I am fond of so many of them.

Moving on. I've been a journalist who has been reviewing software for more than two decades. It gets harder and harder to keep on top of all the new tools, new applications, and new workflows. It's actually screwed up my creative time significantly. I spend so much time learning the new stuff that I don't have time to apply what I've learned to creative activity. I had to find a reliable way to quickly learn the new stuff in, say, any of the Autodesk 3D apps, E-on Vue, Adobe production software, ZBrush, Mari, you name it. If I cover it, I have to be able to get up to speed fast. I've tried DVDs, which were helpful in the past, but you really need a service that stays current every month, and for me a prime resource is Digital-Tutors. I know from my contacts in the industry that most major studios also have contracts with them so that their artists can freely access the video tutorials and keep on the cutting edge.

If this sounds like an ad for Digital-Tutors, it's not.  This blog is just my totally biased opinion on things. I've been around way longer than most of you, so I figure I can do this. But what it is, is that I so appreciate people doing a great job in our industry, I don't care who they are. I'm going to talk about it. Some people got mad at me for touting Scanline because my kids own it. But if you know me you know I'm not nice, and I wrote about Scanline over the intense objections of the owners because I know they're doing a great job. There are a number of companies doing exceptional work and I'll get to them, too.

Okay, back to Digital-Tutors. They don't need me to hype them. With well more than 19,000 Video tutorials and 25 million views, they're doing just fine without me. They release new tutorials on the first of every month as well. So it's like a bottomless well. They don't cover everything, but what they do cover, they cover quite well.

The deal with them is that you can join up for an unlimited month and either sample their tutorials, or you can join for a year and just dig in. In fact, I've studied tutorials on software I don't have; just to see how it works. That's how I discover new applications to follow, like Mari.

The tutorials are organized in several ways: by application, by skill level and by genre. I particularly like the Creative Development section, for example. Also, a new feature is quiz- and test-enabled tutorials, which are great for your group. They also provide assets for practice, which makes things easier.

How good are the tutorials? The video quality is usually excellent full screen…easily readable. As for the presenter, it depends on who you get. The vast majority of their instructors are on the continuum from good to great. Only a few are not so great, but may be presenting an important subject for you. Some of the teachers have heavy accents, but these same people may be excellent, such as Ashish Dani. So don't judge them by their accents. Judge more by how clearly they cover things, how well organized their presentation is, and how well they use the language.

Just a very few of my favorite presenters on certain topics are:

1. Brad Groatman, ZBrush hard surfaces
2. Ismail Wamala, environment concepts
3. Ashish Dani, sci-fi set modeling
4. Scott McEwan, Vue
5. Cory Cosper, ZBrush characters
6. Brian Parnell, ZBrush characters
7. Peter Minister, ZBrush dragons
8. Eddie, all sorts of stuff
9. Kayle, ditto
10. Justin, ditto
11. Delano, character rigging
12. And so many others

Not so great? I won't name names, but I'm sorry to point out that some of the posted tutorials are substandard. I happened to run across one piece on particles that was poorly organized and presented with lots of hesitation. The topic was interesting and I could get through it, but because the presenter was inarticulate, it got annoying. But most of the instructors are quite good.  

What does it cost?

Well if you're a small or large studio, the minimum seats to get a group account is five (at $399 per seat, for a total of $1,995 for an entire year). Each seat (or license) lets artists at the entire studio share training access for the whole training library. That is a great deal IMHO.

For individuals, it's not cheap — $400 a year if you subscribe. But when you consider the wealth of information available, it's probably worth that to many of you. It's a bit more expensive on a month-by-month basis, at $45.00 per, but I think a lot of people do it this way. Examples: A small studio just started using Cinema 4D and they need to get everyone up to speed fast, so they sign on with a studio account for a year. Or you're thinking of changing jobs and you'll have to know Photoshop techniques for matte painting. That monthly rate looks like a bargain, and it is.

There is an interesting little extra. Online schools stream their material in part to protect their assets and intellectual property. But Digital-Tutors is allowing a certain number of downloads so that you can work offline. Say you're headed to a job where internet is spotty and you need to brush up on the latest version of Nuke. If you have enough points saved up, you can download the tutorials onto your hard drive and work offline. You get download credits for each payment. For example, $45.00 gets you one month and 100 download points. I haven't needed this, so I don't know what those points will buy you.

What about The Gnomon Workshop? What about Lynda.com?
Okay, I've been asked if Digital-Tutors is better than The Gnomon Workshop. The answer is, it depends. In ZBrush, for example, Gnomon is fabulous and Digital Tutors is merely very good. But in other areas their coverage may be better than Gnomon's. My point is that you can learn what you need to learn efficiently at Digital-Tutors, if they cover what you're interested in, and it's less expensive than a Gnomon Workshop subscription. Lynda.com is one of my favorites, too. I'm going to have to talk about them a bit down the road. I'm working on some comparisons of their various strengths and areas covered.

Quick example? For me, Digital-Tutors is very project-based, which I like. Gnomon is often more focused on developing skills and workflow, which is very important, but less engaging to my cognitive style. But I've had Gnomon DVDs on matte painting, for example, that were killer and project-based at that. A lot of your choices have to do with how you, personally, learn. We all learn differently. Lynda.com is comprehensive and well organized — but I can see comparing all of the options out there is going to be a major project!

My advice is to always have several sources to learn from. For example I think the very best project-oriented tutorials on Adobe After Effects are completely free on VideoCopilot.net. Andrew Kramer is probably the best video instructor on the planet. But he's focused on After Effects.

For project-based Vue tutorials, you can't beat the free training at GeekatPlay.com. Sure, Vlad has an accent, but I can understand him and he has amazing offerings with his wife Amy. 

In conclusion, take a look at what each source has to offer in the software that you particularly need to learn. 

I've got some very interesting stuff in the pipeline. VFX supervisors Adam Howard and John "D.J." DesJardin will each be ringing in to help us understand what studios have to deal with, and what they look for. And of course I'll have to take a new look at the other online tutorial resources, as well. Just found BadKing.com.au, for all you ZBrush fanatics. Great tutorials. See you back here soon.

-P-

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