Beyer's 3D-environment art.
It's no game. Studying to become a computer game artist or animator involves hard work and long hours.
"I tell my students they need to learn to live on less sleep," says Eric Weiss, chair of Madison Media Institute's computer game art and animation program.
With game revenues rivaling the movie industry's and entry-level salaries in the mid-five figures, what's a little less snooze time in exchange for a two-year degree?
Across five semesters totaling 75 weeks, MMI's game art and animation curriculum drills students in skills ranging from computer graphics to visual storytelling and color theory.
Its first graduating class of nine is now entering the job market with experience in the industry-standard Unreal game engine, software packages including Motion Builder and Adobe's After Effects, and the latest technologies and techniques for motion capture, digital cinematography and lighting.
The class sequence takes students from a first semester that includes drawing, Adobe Tools for animators and 3D gaming animation to game-design principles and production by way of sound effects and myriad other details that go into all those great games flooding the market.
Even so, Beyer allows, MMI's game art and animation sequence is not easy going. The biggest challenge may have been the workload right out of the gate.
By the time he graduated, he notes, attrition had claimed about half the 18 people enrolled with him that first semester. Beyer persevered, he says, "because this is something I want to do."
Weiss confirms some prospects don't understand what they're getting into when they enroll. "I think a lot of students come in thinking that creating games is like playing games," he explains. They are soon disabused of that notion.
The attrition rate has dropped since that first class enrolled two years ago, Weiss notes, as word of the program's rigor gets around.
The best candidates, he suggests, include creative people with some computer expertise and sufficient drive to sustain their ambitions throughout a demanding career.
"It can take a week to do five seconds of animation," Weiss explains. "A lot of people don't realize the sheer amount of labor that it takes."
Weiss estimates the program's student demographics at about 80% male. A handful, he adds, are people in their 30s who have decided that "if they're going to work, they might as well do something they're passionate about."
Net revenues for all games globally surpassed films about five years ago, Weiss notes, "and that trend is accelerating" due to growing demand generated by the proliferation of smart phones and other mobile devices. The emergence of nontraditional gamers seduced by platforms like Wii is also spurring growth, he adds.
At the local level, Weiss observes, "there's been a ton of start-ups" driven by growing demand for mobile-platform games. Most are small companies now, he says, "but my guess is that those small companies will turn into large companies."
Given the growing ease with which entrepreneurs can now launch mobile game projects, Weiss notes, MMI's game art and animation program has imported Unity 3D - a mobile-oriented game engine - into its arsenal.
Graduates pursuing the entry-level route can expect salaries in the neighborhood of $45,000, Weiss adds, citing figures from Game Developer magazine's annual salary survey.
Beyer's own career ambitions range from working in the field's "edutainment" sector to developing flash-based games, which have seen explosive growth in recent years. The work featured on his website at zbeyer.com suggests a promising career ahead.
He credits MMI's game art faculty for boosting his prospects. "They taught me how the industry works," says Beyer, and "how to use shape and color to present ideas."
His advice for candidates who might be considering MMI's game art and animation program? "Never stop working on your portfolio," he answers, "and be open to criticism."
With almost a century of industry experience between them, the program's six core instructors are well-positioned to provide constructive feedback.
Department chair Weiss, for example, brings more than 20 years in computer animation and visual effects to MMI. He has supervised hundreds of artists on some projects, worked in TV and movies as well as on games, has launched his own animation studio and co-founded an iPhone application-development company. His c.v. also includes work on Superman Returns, Godzilla and Polar Express, and for Electronic Arts and Madison-based Human Head Studios.
Other MMI game art and animation faculty have professional backgrounds in artistic direction, 3D design, production and technical management. Among their aggregated game credits: CarnEvil, Doom 3, Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, Prey, Quake 4, Singularity, Super Duelling Minivans, Wolfenstein and Xenophage.
Complementing the faculty's strengths, says Weiss, is a motion-capture lab equipped with Motion Analysis technology. "Movies like Avatar use it extensively," he notes, adding that he used it while working on Polar Express and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
By continuing to update hardware and software to teach cutting-edge skills, Weiss says, MMI's game art and animation program may help Madison continue to develop as a hub for game companies. Keeping pace with industry advances he describes as "evolutionary rather than revolutionary," he adds, should yield more students who emerge from the program at the top of their game.