The Long Road to The Rookies
Set to introduce more contest and official certification review process in 2019, The Rookies co-founders Andrew McDonald and Alwyn Hunt reflect on their journey to help students make the transition from school to real-world production environments.
Having travelled the globe for dream visual effects jobs in the film and television industry, the joint show reel from good friends Andrew McDonald, and Alwyn Hunt, reads like a movie must-see list including Oscar-winning Happy Feet, The Hobbit, Logan, Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, to name just a few.
The duo is also the driving force behind The Rookies, the global platform and annual awards competition sponsored by Autodesk and open to young creatives in film, animation, games, VR, motion graphics and architecture visualization that has garnered the attention of some of the best studios located around the world.
By profession, McDonald, who grew up in Sydney, is a modeler and uses various computer software to create 3D assets for the digital world. McDonald’s created everything from the digi-double for Harry Potter to characters and environments for the Lego movie, Suckerpunch and Narnia’s Prince Caspian.
Hunt, who grew up in Lumsden in rural New Zealand, is a look development and texture artist and has brought to life characters like the Bandersnatch for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Smaug the dragon for The Hobbit and General Zod for Man of Steel.
During their time working in film and television around the world, they noticed that despite a booming industry over the last 10 years and the high demand for visual effects artists, it’s really difficult to find skilled graduates. A big reason for the lack of skilled students is because the curriculums schools teach don’t keep up to date with the changing technology studios use. Sadly, this isn’t stopping schools from charging students around $50,000 for courses and spitting them out the other end not equipped for employment.
The skill shortage is even worse in the duo’s native Australia and New Zealand, where the industry is smaller, with fewer studios and limited opportunities for artists seeking stable employment. And for productions seeking local tax breaks, the rates are less than competitive, offering a 16.5% location tax-offset compared to 30-70% rates in Canada.
“When I was working in London as Head of Modeling in 2006, we were seeing a constant stream of people applying for jobs that simply didn’t have the right training for the positions we needed to fill,” McDonald explains. “After working with universities and getting funding from UK government agency Creative Skillset to mentor students, we realized the problem was much bigger than we first thought. Seeing students -- time and time again -- who had paid for expensive courses, graduate to only then realize they are nowhere near ready for a job is just heartbreaking.”
For students, The Rookies offers a “stamp of approval” as they transition from school to production, enabling them to have their work seen, graded and commented on by industry heavyweights. As well as find out where they stack up against their peers. For studios and recruiters, The Rookies is the place to find outstanding emerging talent. The end goal? Launch young creatives into careers.
With more than 8,725 projects submitted this year alone, The Rookies is essentially becoming a recruitment tool for studios -- a talent agency, if you will -- that independently reviews digital artists’ skills and connects them with studios who need great talent.
To date The Rookies have helped place 89 students in jobs across Asia, Canada, Europe, Oceania and the US. Participating students have gone on to work on films such as Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Mummy, Iron Man, Captain America and The Avengers, and AAA level games such as Hellblade, Far Cry and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Sadly only one of the 89 students that have been placed into jobs to date is Australian.
“The industry has no voice here in Australia. There’s such a skill shortage in this area yet there’s no one monitoring the curriculums the schools teach,” says Hunt. “Studios, students and the students’ parents are all frustrated. Our contacts at studios around the world express frustration with the resistance to change the curriculums and the lack of studio input into these courses. Often schools don’t train their students to produce either high-standard creative work or fit them for careers.”
The Rookies is supported in their effort to change this by some of the world’s smartest companies. This includes studios -- like Weta Digital, Epic Games and Animal Logic -- and software, hardware and media companies such as Autodesk, Foundry and Shutterstock.
“We had the attention of studios early on because we had the largest online collection of student portfolios anywhere -- each student reviewed and ranked,” Hunt says. “The studios look to us to simplify the recruitment process and to find the best new industry-ready talent.”
Richard Frances-Moore, senior head of Department in Motion at Weta Digital, speaks highly of The Rookies, saying, “We are proud to be a part of the program which has uncovered fantastic new artists and animators, several who have come to Weta Digital and become valuable members of our team.”
The judging panel is impressive, too, and includes Oscar-winners such as Joe Letteri (who is known for his pioneering visual effects work with Avatar and Lord of the Rings) and top honchos from some of the world’s best studios, including head of animation Rob Coleman from Animal Logic (who has also been nominated for an Oscar for his work on two Star Wars films).
Chatting about where their passion to help students comes from and the path that led them to start The Rookies, McDonald and Hunt say it can be traced back to their own life experiences and journey into the industry. Like it is for many young people, their career paths weren’t direct.
In 1995, when the groundbreaking Toy Story (the first 3D animation feature-length film) was released, although McDonald had just started studying for a Bachelor of Design, he was completely blown away by the film and knew he needed to be a part of the industry. Computer graphics was introduced as part of his course so he began spending every spare moment teaching himself 3D stuff.
After graduating in 2000, McDonald did work experience at one of the best multi-disciplined design companies at the time, Blue Sky. They were working on some high-end products and had just completed the Sydney Olympic Torch for the 2000 games. “My first task was designing an iron for Breville,” he recounts. “I was asked to go away and come back with 20 designs for the base of the iron. I remember thinking to myself, ‘When will I be designing a gadget for James Bond?’ Ultimately, work experience made me realize industrial design wasn’t for me,” he acknowledges.
“It was difficult,” McDonald confesses, adding, “I’d done an industrial design degree and I was headed out the gate and already in another direction. I had to convince my parents it was the right decision because they had no idea what this visual effects industry was all about, and it really was in it’s infancy at the time. But I took the plunge.”
Hunt admits he had no idea what he wanted to do. Having grown up in a small town in rural New Zealand, the one thing he did know was that he wanted to get out and explore the world. “I don’t have a big family,” Hunt says. “My parents passed away at an early age so I left when I was 17 and I had to work out life pretty quickly.”
After making his way to Queenstown and getting into hospitality, he worked as a kitchen hand and later progressed to a chefs apprenticeship in Christchurch, where he won Apprentice Chef of the Year in New Zealand. Hunt used the prize money to move to Australia to work on the Gold Coast and in Cairns. While he was passionate about food, like McDonald he also wanted to be more creative, and then discovered pastries and desserts. “The discipline of baking and pastries is a science, everything has to be precise. From there I got into food art, decorating and sculptures so I wanted to specialize in desserts,” Hunt says.
“I got a job in a hotel in Cairns doing pastry,” he continues. “I had my own little decorating room where people would come down each day and see all these elaborate designs I used to make on cakes and dessert.”
Having caught the travel bug, Hunt decided to travel through Asia for six months and ended up in London, where he got a job at the London Hilton on Park Lane as a pastry chef. He also worked with Michelin-starred chef Marco Pierre White. After a few years working at the top of the game in renowned restaurants, Hunt went back to Sydney and worked at the Sheraton on the Park. It was then he decided to further explore his artistic side and got into photography, fine art and also became enamored by emerging 3D technology.
“I had to beg, borrow and work weekends as a chef to study the necessary courses to get into visual effects,” Hunt recalls of his path into the industry. “In 2000, CGI was just starting to hit Australia and I ended up doing an Advanced Diploma in Computer Graphics. The 18-month course was around $20,000 and I borrowed the money off my flat mate. When I came out the other side, I was in the position like many of students we help today. I didn’t have a portfolio, didn’t have a show reel, I had nothing. The lecturers weren’t great, I wasn’t industry- ready.”
At that time, when the new technology for VFX was emerging, the guys say there wasn’t an obvious path for someone who wanted to work in the industry.
“I knew I loved this stuff and I knew I wanted to work in films or games but where to start?” McDonald asks, adding, “I had to feel the way rather than the path being obvious.”
It was in the summer of 2000 that the then-complete strangers both enrolled in an advanced 12-week Animation and Special Effects course at the KVB Institute in North Sydney.
“I remember Alwyn walking into the first class late,” McDonald smiles, “I think he’d been in the wrong room. The class had started and this guy rolls in declaring this is where he thinks he should be and distracts everyone with his nonchalant bravado. As he sat down next to me, I remember thinking, ‘Great!’”
Hunt laughs and admits he did strategically sit himself near McDonald. “The funny thing is,” Hunt says, “I really I had no idea what I was doing. And with McDonald coming from an industrial design background, I automatically picked up that he knew his shit.”
“So you sponged off me?” McDonald jokes, continuing, “It was a small class of only about 10 on day one, which dropped to about three a few weeks in.”
Despite all of the uncertainty around finding the best path into the industry, one thing’s for sure, both McDonald and Hunt are adamant that their success came down to the camaraderie. An approach they foster with The Rookies today through events they hold for students as well as travelling around speaking at schools and meeting people at conferences the world over.
“We were a little older than most in the course and when there were just three of us left after a few weeks in, we ended up helping the young guy left with us. He had loads of questions and Alwyn and I found ourselves helping him with the answers,” McDonald says.
Fast forward a few years when they each had a few jobs under their belt, they found themselves working on different sides of the globe. After a stint in LA, Hunt was in Canada when McDonald got in touch with him and convinced him to come to London.
“McDonald was working on loads of films in London and he kind of convinced me to come,” Hunt recalls.
With the creation of believable CGI creatures and photo-realistic digital doubles of actors taking the movie world by storm, the industry in London was going off at that time. “We were on the cusp of that,” Hunt says, continuing “working on the biggest films back then in London was really exciting.”
It was at this point in London that the two noticed the skill shortage of graduates and decided to do something about it.
McDonald started by mentoring students for 12 weeks at Bournemouth University. In order to mimic the real-world production environment and provide advice about what steps to take next, he came up with the idea to create a blog that allowed students to upload their work for him to review to. McDonald blew the university away with his dedication and was asked to mentor another class and get more industry professionals involved.
“Alwyn and I discussed next steps and started approaching all of the schools and universities and taking on more mentoring,” McDonald explains.
From approaching UK government agency Creative Skillset to fund their work through to developing an online platform that allowed them collaborate directly with UK Universities, along with contacts from the industry, they provided professional-level feedback and critiqued students’ graduation projects.
As the program rolled out to a number of UK schools, however, some of the lecturers saw them as a threat rather than as partners with the same goals in mind. “Unbeknown to us, we often contradicted the lecturer’s opinions by suggesting industry tools and workflows that were not in-line with the curriculum they were teaching,” McDonald says. “We then realized we needed to get involved earlier on in a student’s education.”
McDonald and Hunt then started working on their own project -- launching a global online platform, CG Coach (Computer Graphics Coach) and Computer Graphics Student Awards (today known as The Rookies), so junior artists the world over could access it.
Teaching themselves everything they could about web development, sales, marketing and business strategy, they created a website that allowed junior artists to get feedback directly from industry professionals.
Since then McDonald and Hunt have worked tirelessly speaking to their friends, industry contacts and reaching out to studios, to curate a panel of people to rate the students’ skills across a number of criteria and help identify their strengths and weaknesses -- and ultimately figure out how attractive they were to recruiters.
They did all of this while working in their career jobs and starting families of their own. Both McDonald and Hunt credit their wives love and support as the reason they have been able to enjoy successful careers while simultaneously building The Rookies from the ground up.
“I would be lying if I didn’t admit is has been a struggle. We both owe a lot to our partners,” McDonald admits. “Our wives supported us through working insane hours, weekends, holidays, through having babies and travelling the world. For eight years we put all of the money we made back into the business without taking a single dollar for salary,” he adds.
Today The Rookies can effectively say to students they can submit and potentially win a studio internship, or even an academic scholarship, without even having to do an interview.
“These students go on to work in lead jobs, supervisor jobs, they’re working on the biggest films, the latest games and they all had their break from The Rookies,” McDonald says. “We’ve got this alumni growing and some amazing success stories.”
One of those stories is from Min Oh, who is originally from South Korea but packed up his bags in pursuit of his career, which has seen him move to San Francisco and LA. After winning The Rookies award for Next-Gen Gaming in 2014, he was flown by Epic Games to North Carolina for the internship of his dreams.
“The internship I gained at Epic Games in North Carolina after winning The Rookies changed my life,” Min says. “It gave me the chance to build my career. Epic Games extended my internship and then hired me into a full-time role. I’ve stayed in touch with The Rookies and I hope one day I too will be able to help young creatives who want to work in gaming.”
For young artists who want to crack into the industry but aren’t quite ready, Hunt and McDonald are taking the time to point them in the right direction and coach them through the skills they are missing. Sometimes it’s fundamental stuff. “It’s almost like a final module,” Hunt explains. “We’re trying to help the students understand the industry and early on we discovered they were coming to us instead of their lecturer because they want our opinion.”
With 8,752 projects submitted to The Rookies in 2017, evidence indicates that students are choosing to value programs like The Rookies more than their university grades.
“Although I know having the university piece of paper is great, I just don’t feel like I’m getting what I need out of my course,” comments VFX student Renee Marsland. “I’ve been pretty unhappy with how the course has been run for a while now and have actually been learning more through advanced python tutorials and other online courses that I have been doing in my spare time.”
As such, McDonald and Hunt are working to take The Rookies one step further in 2018 by introducing online courses and an official certification review process.
“Judging this year’s awards highlighted to me why we need some kind of certification process,” McDonald says. “I came across a recent honors graduate who had studied for five years. While reading the student’s bio you could feel a sense of accomplishment and self-worth, but that fact was it was one of the weakest portfolios I have seen to date and there was absolutely no chance they were industry ready.”
The goal behind the certification is to allow digital artists to enhance their credibility and career success by passing an industry-approved review process recognized by schools, employers and industry stakeholders.
“It will provide all digital artists with a clear checklist of industry-approved skills they need to display in their portfolios when applying for jobs,” explains McDonald. “We want to clear up the confusion as creative skills are very different to traditional business skills where you just take an exam to prove your knowledge. It’s a lot more complicated and needs clearer guidelines before it’s too late.”