Bringing the “magic” to life: VCUarts launches concentration/minor in visual effects

Video camera view screen showing a person (also visible in the background) in a motion capture suit

By Jenny Pedraza, APR

The older versions of Brad Pitt’s face in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Menacing dragons breathing fire as they fly through the air in Game of Thrones. Rebels battling Imperial forces on a snow-covered planet in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The floating feather in Forrest Gump.

“If you watch any movie, television show or commercial, chances are, there are visual effects in it,” said Matt Wallin, senior professor in the Department of Communication Arts. “It’s the huge, bombastic scenes, but it’s also the small details that make a character come to life, help tell a historical story or make you feel like you can see and experience the scenes.”

This academic year, the Department of Communication Arts launched a new visual effects concentration and minor. The six-course sequence combines art and technology to provide students with broad experience in the artistic, technical and narrative production of digital, visual effects for live-action footage. Communication Arts majors can pursue the concentration, while students outside of Communication Arts can pursue the minor.

For the past 14 years, Wallin has taught a variety of visual effects courses at VCUarts, but this is the first time the courses have been organized as an accredited concentration/minor. Wallin began his career at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, where he worked for nearly a decade in the company’s computer graphics division. For the next 25 years, he worked at many of the top visual effects houses in the U.S. and abroad.

TyRuben Ellingson, chair of the Department of Communication Arts and program director for Cinema, said VCU students have shown an increased interest in visual effects and are eager to gain experience in the industry.

“Students entering VCUarts want to work across traditional borders, bend the rules and forge their own unique path,” Ellingson said. “In the simplest terms, visual effects provide storytellers powerful new tools, and the concentration/minor is designed to open the door for students by providing an educational entryway into the fast-evolving world of creation.” 

Visual effects have always been a part of cinema, but the industry has seen a rapid expansion as new virtual production technologies emerge. Film box office sales for North America reached a record-breaking $11.8 billion in 2018, according to media industry leader Comscore. In 2019, all of the top 10 highest-grossing films were either visual effects movies or computer-animated films. The need for qualified visual effects artists continues to grow with the industry.

Fourteen students started in the new concentration/minor this spring semester, taking their first course together as a cohort. Offered through the Cinema program, the course allows students to learn about the mechanics of screenwriting, which serves as a foundation for interpreting narrative storytelling into a visual effects storyboard. The Communication Arts courses that will follow focus on 2D and 3D software, digital filming, compositing, motion capture and applicable post-production workflows.

Odette Strider, a senior in Communications Arts, decided to pursue the concentration in visual effects to learn all the “magical stuff” that makes a scene feel real.

“I love film and video games—I love that interactive element,” she said. “I’m looking forward to using the programs and software that are the industry standard and being able to take an object and warp it or transform it with textures or create special characters. This knowledge is vital to my future job—it’s not just theoretical.”

Jermaine O’Neil, a junior majoring in accounting, is pursuing a minor in visual effects. A Richmond native and non-traditional student who returned to VCU in 2020 to complete his bachelor’s degree, O’Neil works in accounting and as “Coach Squeak” at Richmond-area community centers. His passion, however, has always been in film. O’Neil has even jetted off to Southern California to learn about the film industry and take in the atmosphere.

“Who doesn’t love movies?” he said. “Movies allow you to escape your world and use your imagination and creativity. I had some experience in using motion and Final Cut Pro, but I wanted to step up my special effects game and implement that into my craft. My plan is to get my CPA and head to Netflix, and I’d also love to direct movies.”

Wallin said it’s this interdisciplinary aspect of the concentration/minor that he loves most.

“Visual effects is about working with people who have different expertise and maximizing everybody’s skill set through creativity, science and technology,” Wallin said. “We’re going to try things, and I bet we will find that our spectacular mistakes are sometimes more interesting than our successes because it’s really all about problem-solving. That’s how it is in the real world, and that kind of skill set holds a litany of opportunity for our students.”