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Jason Busby on Educating Future Animators

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Daniel Dern interviews Jason Busby, the guy behind video-training firm 3D Buzz. They discuss the challenges in creating realistic animated characters for games and other environments, what's changed about the technology, and the frailty of most video-based learning systems.
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Like many active creative professionals, Sams Publishing author Jason Busby wears, or has worn, several hats. Busby is currently CEO of 3D Buzz, Inc., a technical education company he founded in 2001, where he also teaches and does video training course development. Previously, he was a software developer for a decade and a half, and, until relatively recently, director of animation for The Renaissance Center, an arts and technology education and performing arts center near Nashville, Tennessee.

Busby is also coauthor of three books from Sams Publishing about Epic Games, Inc.'s Unreal Engine:

With Michele Bousquet, he wrote Mastering the Art of Production with 3ds max 4 (Delmar Cengage Learning), published in 2001.

I recently interviewed Jason via email for InformIT.

What's changed in animation/game-creation, in terms of creating, the business, etc.?

It seems like every year, animated characters are looking more stunningly realistic, [and] they are placed in more richly detailed environments. For games, it's a bit difficult to fully quantify just how far we've come in only a few short years.

But that detail doesn't create itself. It takes teams of artists more time than ever to come up with the visual assets for these projects, especially in the gaming world.

What's changed about the technology available to students, and that they'll be using as professionals? Any particular products or tools? What would you like to see become available?

Some of the biggest changes in 3D animation technology are the advances in procedural workflow. It's a way of thinking that is only just now starting to really catch on, even though it's been with us for a while now.

And the tools are evolving to a point that they are finally becoming easily accessible to artists, not just to strictly technical-minded developers.

I like that some companies still believe in the value of providing a free learning edition of their software to the thousands of prospective students out there who want to use their software. For example, Side Effects Software's incredible animation tool, Houdini.

Where else is computer animation being put to use besides gaming, movies, and TV? I'm speaking of its commercial (job) prospects.

I'm always blown away by the not-quite-so-obvious places that 3D turns up. It's on billboards, in magazines, on clothing; it's being used in manufacturing, visualization, real-time 3D interactive classrooms, 3D visual databases, medical imaging[el]the list just goes on and on.

You spent over a decade and a half as a programmer. How and why did you get into it?

I've always had an affinity (read: obsession) with anything technical. While in high school I got caught up in an aircraft mechanics class. After high school, I went into the Air Force as a way to pay for college and quickly found myself working as a SATCOM technician.

Out of the Air Force, I continued my education in electronic engineering, and discovered my true love for programming. This eventually took me to running my own consulting agency, where we developed custom applications.

After a couple of years of that, I realized that, at that particular time in my life, running a business on my own just wasn't my thing. I ended up taking on a job in middle Tennessee at a software consultancy firm, Stone Ridge Consultants. One of the largest projects I worked on while there was all of the software and necessary graphics for "Dream Mission," a 70-foot replica of the Space Shuttle.

The Dream Mission project was sponsored by The Jackson Foundation, and it was through it that I came to know Tennessee state senator Doug Jackson. About a year into the Dream Mission project, I was offered a job at a new facility The Jackson Foundation was developing, known as The Renaissance Center. The idea was to create a high-tech learning environment in the heart of middle Tennessee. I was originally hired on as a systems engineer, but after working with a variety of specialists to help lay out the technology for The Renaissance Center, I eventually became their resident IT specialist.

It was not long after this that I was offered the job of director of animation at the Center, due to all of the graphics work I had done throughout the completion of the Dream Mission project.

Meanwhile, my company, 3D Buzz, began in 2001, as really little more than a side project while I was working as the Center's director of animation. At the time, 3D animation training was scarce in general, and what little was available was astronomically expensive. I hated having to turn away talented individuals who were clearly eager to learn, for no other reason than that they didn't have the thousands of dollars needed to get into our program.

3D Buzz provides professional-quality video training for the hottest applications in the 3D animation, game design, and programming industries. It's become the pioneer site for free video education about 3D animation. We also have what we feel is one of the most helpful and friendly online communities you're ever going to find on an education-based website.

I was the director of animation at The Renaissance Center for about six years, until 3D Buzz grew to the point that it demanded a full commitment on my part, and so I was put in a position in which I had to make a choice. Four years ago I chose 3D Buzz, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What led you to do and pursue video-based education/training?

Written tutorials are great, but I never felt I could really get that personal touch across in my written lessons. I needed to be talking with my hands and pacing around the room and doing everything I could to make sure that the student was as excited about learning this stuff as I was at the opportunity to teach it. There just isn't (yet) another way to do that outside of video.

Training videos—at least the way we make them here at 3D Buzz—are about bringing the all-too-often-overlooked human element back into technical training.

But the training video experience isn't perfect. First off, it's only one-sided. You can't ask questions of a video tutorial (yet), nor can you get any sort of back-and-forth interaction with the viewer. It can't really encourage, it can't compliment your good work or criticize poor efforts. In short, it can't push you.

This is exactly why 3D Buzz wouldn't be what it is today without its vast community of friendly forum posters and site users. They help fill in that vacuum of detachment between the video and the viewer.

Each day I receive email from students all over the world who are landing their dream jobs, be it through animation, programming, or game development, or even just learning a new hobby with which they'd always been fascinated but is only now making sense to them, and they send me a message to say "Thank you" for helping to make that possible. No words can describe how inspiring and uplifting that is, and how proud it makes me to be able to be a positive force in so many people's lives.

What led you to write/co-write your SAMS books?

I had done a technical book, Mastering the Art of Production with 3ds Max 4, previously, so I'd already had my first experience writing a technology book.

The book Mastering Unreal Technology: The Art of Level Design came from my doing some training videos about using the editor that came with the original Unreal game.

I was working a booth at a SIGGRAPH show, and Mark Rein, the vice president of Epic Games, came over to visit. He had this great idea for us to write a book about Unreal Technology. I was fortunate enough to have Zak Parrish—who is in his own right a very talented and capable writer—on the 3D Buzz staff and eager to help out. It wasn't long thereafter that the contracts with Sams Publishing were signed, and we wrote the book.

As the years passed and Unreal Engine 3 started to peek over the horizon, it became apparent to Sams Publishing that an update for our book would soon be necessary. As we began the project, we realized that a mere update was just not going to do the changes to the technology any kind of justice, and we ended up doing a full rewrite.

When we were finished, our documentation of Unreal Engine 3 was so vast that the book had to be split into two separate pieces; there was no way to bind it as a single volume. So now we have the upcoming release of two separate books, Volume 1 and Volume 2.

How do you juggle all these activities?

Juggling would definitely be the word for it! Time management is a hard skill to stay on top of, but I really think it's about keeping your priorities straight (which of course makes the process sound many times easier than it is).

First and foremost, I have to keep the best interests of 3D Buzz in mind, but we're a small team. I can't just step away and let others handle the development of training content. Not yet, anyway. Plus, I love teaching too much to simply walk away from it.

I think that's the hardest thing to keep track of: Knowing when to delegate and when you can get your hands dirty. 3D Buzz is steadily growing, but it's hard to let go of the reins sometimes and let someone else handle tasks that you've been doing for years.

As for how I do it, really, it just boils down to being patient with yourself (and those around you) and in a best-case scenario having a talented team and a supportive partner to back you up. For instance, if I didn't have the ongoing support (and seemingly infinite patience) of my lovely wife, Angela, I'd probably have to whip out the credit card and invest in a straightjacket and some Best of Queen albums.

Tell InformIT readers something about yourself.

As far as hobbies and favorite activities go, it's really a toss-up between my two favorite loves, which strangely enough are each at vastly opposite ends of the spectrum: flying and SCUBA diving.

A few years back, I finally gave in and invested in getting my Private Pilot's License. There are few things in life that I find as simultaneously engaging and exhilarating as flying an airplane.

And then there's SCUBA—I know, I'm just asking for some sort of altitude or pressure sickness, aren't I? I'm a PADI-certified [Professional Association of Diving Instructors] Advanced Diver and an Enriched Air Diver.

SCUBA for me is like going to an alien world. No matter the dive, be it something as simple as descending at a rock quarry or as vibrant and intense as diving the reefs of Bonaire, there's something so peaceful and fascinating about the underwater experience. One of these days, I hope to be able to go diving off Sipadan Island in Malaysia.

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, MA. His website is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.

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