Firstly, thanks to everyone on this forum for taking time out of their own lives to post their experiences and findings to help out those that don't have a clue. You have no idea how many times I've visited these forums for support in the past 6 months. So I felt like it was time to give back because I know there are a lot of people who have a very similar situation to mine out there and I hope could help out at least one person with this post.
Now this is a long post I know, but I felt that it was the only way I could get my point across. This post is for anyone struggling to find and settle on good affordable 3D education.
I'm from Cairo, Egypt and I was, thanks to very practically minded parents, "influenced" into getting a bachelors degree in something I currently could not care less about. I was really young and naieve back then and I realize now how much our generation takes life for granted. That aside I graduated and worked for about 1 year and a half and saved up a little bit of money (emphasis on the word "little"). And then I had a "quarter"-life crisis where I began to re-evaluate everything from the purpose of my existence to what it is that I want to do with my life. One thing led to another and I began to remember my love for animation. When I was 11, I got a copy of Macromedia Flash 8 (before Adobe bought them out) and taught myself how to use it and how to animate (way before youtube and the hunreds of millions of easy-access tutorials that are available today). So I decided I want to learn animation and just about everything CG. Thus began my research.
Honestly the extent of my research was rediculous and the amount of schools I looked into is quite staggering, and it's funny when I look back at what I wanted to do only 6 months ago. I wanted to travel half away across the universe to Full Sail, Think Tank and even VFS. But, if you're like me, and do a good amount of background checking on these schools, you'll see that every single student that attends one of these schools says the same thing; "what you put in to it is what you get out of it". Please re-read that last sentence, because it is incredibly important. Furthermore, this problem is compounded by the fact that several students at several schools have said things ranging from their teachers not caring to the fact that there is so much they could have learned via much cheaper sources like online tuts and books. Again, I'm not hating and this isn't an opinion, this is the culmination of months of my research. And it was a HUGE problem for me because I was going to need to take a out a huge loan or something and travel a good distance alone to do this. So I started looking at other options.
Simply put, for someone like me living out here, online education was my only option. So I started looking around and of course animation mentor pops up time and again and at one point I was ready to sell a kidney so I could attend this school. But, again, my research had something else to say. Animation Mentor is great, it's fabulous and sparkly and beautiful and all that other stuff, but, it's got one MASSIVE set back. Other than the fairly high tuition, they have a huge amount of mentors. "Wait, but that's a good thing" is what you're probably thinking right now. No, it turns out it's not because you have no guarentee of getting a great mentor who works at Pixar or Disney (which is what they advertise). A lot of students get mentors who work at studios they might not even have heard of and they might not even have the best English. Again, i'm not hating on anyone, but what I'm saying is that if I'm paying that kind of cash for a service, I don't want to have to struggle to understand my mentor. Plus, you have a mentor who's working full time at a studio and has 30 or more students and needs to pop out around 15 min e-critiques per student per week, that's 7.5 hours of e-critiquing straight (that's if he works constantly and does not stop for a break). So if your mentor is especially busy, you can imagine how great your feedback is going to be. All of this is actually confessions of an ex-mentor who used to work over there. Again, they still provide an great service, but those are just my two cents (if you want to see it for yourself, open up their website and download the curriculum PDF for the 18 month animation program and you can see a list of the mentors).
Things were starting to look grim for me and I was beginning to think I'm going to be stuck in my day job living an unfulfilled life until I came across a post in another forum (the one in kennyroy dot com). It was a a disciple of animation, like me, who had come across a program over at www dot cgspectrum dot com and was talking about how good it was. I jumped on over there, hopeful and excited, and i have to say I liked what I saw (or read that is). I sent them an email and got a reply the next day, and skyped with the founder of the program the day after. You can open up the site to get the details about the program (no sense in reposting here), but what I can tell you is that these guys really really do give a damn about you and your progress. I found the program at the beginning of June and signed up about 10 days later. So you get a sense of CGSpectrum and how much it is that they really care, here's a quick breakdown:
They limit each semester to about 5 students per Mentor.
The mentors, on average, provide you with feedback 3 times per week on your work with one of those times being a live web conference.
If there's something you just can't figure out, they're there to help. For example, I had a problem with one of my Maya files and couldn't understand what was happening. They took my file opened it up, recorded a video and showed me how to solve it. Another student talked about how he couldn't get a character's IK spine to look a certain way, so the mentor took the file, opened it up and showed him EXACTLY how to do it. No other online school does that.
Their mentors are also pros of the industry. My mentor for this semester worked on Avatar, Smurfs, and Tintin amongst other things.
These guys are hooked up around the industry, especially in Vancouver, Canada. They know major studio owners and, if you're in that region, they will take you out on a tour through the studios and introduce you to people you could have only dreamed of meeting.
These guys really do care, they are both mentors and friends. One time, I was late for an assignment and my mentor got worried and sent me an email to check up on me to see how things were going (and this is WHILE he was traveling). Basically, in this very intricate and complex field, you need a good mentor. And the problem today is people believe that they can spend $70,000 to attend a school and they'll be pros (I even used to subconsciously believe this). Reality Check: just because that school has some students that produce awesome reels doesn't mean you will. You have to work your ass off. And if you are like me with not much cash and a burning desire to follow your bliss in life, then online schools are a good solution, and CGSpectrum is one that can provide you with an amazing opportunity. Those guys really helped me out a lot and so I wanted to get their name out there. They are relatively new and steadily growing with a VFX program they'll be starting in September for Houdini. And the guy running that program is one of the lead VFX directors from the Harry Potter movies. They also have other programs in development which include Character Modeling and Lighting and Rendering.
Check them out. They might be what you're looking for. Good luck to all of you on the beginning of your journey and I hope this was helpful.