On teaching VFX, and anything else really.

“Aren’t you afraid of teaching everything you know about a subject?"

This is a question I never managed to make sense of – like… what?? I wish I could help others to know more than I do, not less!! What gives you value and purpose as a human being? Making others around you better, happier and smarter, or patting yourself on the back in some conception of a zero-sum universe?

Rephrasing this question however, we can turn it into a really fun one:

Is it possible to teach all you know about a subject?

Now this is a fascinating topic. Because in order to answer this question, you also need to explore how exactly one’s understanding about a topic develops.

I recently took part in a Foundry livestream on their YouTube channel with my awesome colleagues Tony Lyons and Josh Parks, and among other things we touched on this topic of sharing your knowledge with others. And while “briefly” gathering my thoughts, I ended up writing down a lot more than expected and elaborating properly, so it turned into this post!

You can watch the livestream here, or keep reading for some of my random thoughts on teaching.

"The Quest"

Ok, so back to our question:

Is it possible to teach all you know about a subject?

The quest to answer this is a mission that keeps me awake and on the look for better ways to get closer. But it’s being so much harder than I would’ve ever imagined!

Let me elaborate…

One comparison I usually make is between learning literally any subject, let’s say digital compositing in our case, and exploring a country.

Whenever I set out to teach a subject, even if I do it intensively such as with a 600h course, my job is that of a travel guide. The person whose mission is to show you a country when you visit, or even when you plan to move to it. And… how much of the country will the local travel guide be able to show you? Well, let’s see:

It will for sure save you tons of time and it might actually give you some invaluable insight. However even if the travel guide puts all of their planning and effort into showing you all they know about the country, there’s just too many details and connections and context that would need so much more time in order for you to truly understand the culture, the landscapes, the architecture or whatever you’re really interested in learning about that place.

This exact same thing happens as a teacher. When I’m teaching about any subject, let’s say Keying and Despill, my true wish would be to make my students understand all that I know about the subject and be able to approach it and think about it, and even come up with solutions, in the same way that I do.

But again, in my personal journey I’ve been approaching so many different specific areas of this subject from so many different perspectives, that today the topic of “keying and despill” on my brain might be more accurately represented as a network of deeply interconnected points, with millions of little connections both between the insides of these concepts and with other areas of compositing or VFX, and even with my personal experiences and memories.

Representation of my understanding of this particular topic.
Fun fact, I made this neural network using a neural network.

Conveying all of this to a human student is plainly impossible, which makes the job of teaching one craft that involves lots of smart and careful planning.

The travel guide

A local travel guide would start by showing you the highlights and main blocks that make up a far and general overview of the country they show, so that you gather initial thoughts about the culture, nature, architecture and others, accelerating your discovery by a whole lot, and then you can take it from there by yourself and fill up all the millions of little gaps in knowledge. Luckily you’ll already have the tentpoles that give you some initial notion of structure about the place as well as some understanding about where to make questions and start looking for those gaps by yourself.

The travel guide’s job is so important because it could save you months or even years from learning to locate these main blocks by yourself, and with their help you can be quickly pointed to those flagship features of the country that give you the most understanding about it with the least amount of information needed (or brain connections…). It’s a case of trying to get you to as much useful understanding of the place in as little time as possible, while always acknowledging that the insight a local will have is exponentially deeper than you could achieve in just a few days or even months, even if both you and the guide put all the effort in making it be otherwise.

This is exactly what I’ve felt that happens when I aim to teach all I know about one subject. Back to the digital Keying and Despill example – I might manage to teach all the fundamentals and even some pretty advanced techniques in just a few weeks to my compositing students – but after that, even if I keep making examples and investing hours in answering questions, I find there is a point where even if I feel that all information has already been exposed, there’s just too many layers of indirect mental connections between concepts that need to be internally created within the students’ minds, and those ones can’t come from the outside but only from a layered way through a constant and progressive hands-on experience with the topic through possibly many years. And in this article I won’t even get into the topic of how much you think you know about a subject VS how much you actually know.

Maybe this is part of the magic that makes a senior artist senior. Intangible things. Not what you know but how interconnected what you know is within itself. How many levels and dimensions of connections between the concepts you really have and how much you’ve been exposed to them in order to see underlying patterns that help you infer solutions to new situations, and not only that but see them on the spot and without needing to process. Those patterns are right there for you in the back of your mind and will give you ways of navigating the topic (hello to human specialisation!) in a much more efficient way than any amount of knowledge without experience would be able to provide.

So, go ahead and teach all you can. Share the passion and knowledge. And if you manage to teach all you know about one specific subject (or even 80% of it) please let me know the secret because I’ve been trying really hard and no luck so far.

Free bonus: really trying to share all you can is not just so greatly rewarding, but along the way you might very well end up learning yourself more than whoever you’re teaching. This I can personally confirm to be fairly accurate every single time. 🙂

Talking about teaching and writing, if you’d like to read some random VFX thoughts or tips, or stay updated on my posts, tools or courses, I just started sending a little newsletter every once in a while. Not much but whenever I get to it I try to write stuff that’s actually condensed and interesting. You can join the newsletter here.

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