Vancouver Film School’s Marty Hasselbach

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Marty Hasselbach, Managing Director of Vancouver Film School, discusses how VFS has both developed talent and driven the film industry in Vancouver over the past 25 years. In this interview from SIGGRAPH 2014, Marty and Steve Waskul explore the design of VFS, the opportunities for its students, and the latest technologies powering this institution.

As the interview opens, Mr. Waskul remarks just how impressed he is with the caliber of the programs offered at Vancouver Film School, specifically because they are targeted at giving the students what they need to be successful in the real world. Smiling in appreciation, Marty explains that over 25 years they have refined their programs to provide measurable outcomes that meet or exceed expectations. Most universities, he says, have an “a la carte” menu, where students pick and choose from available classes. Their school, however, is comparable to a “fixed menu”- programs are sequenced.

It seems, Steve continues, that your students get a lot of hands-on production experience. Yes, Marty confirms, all 13 programs are hands-on and production driven; as a school they create over 900 productions a year. The programs are designed so that the first half is more about learning the techniques and the second is driven toward creating a portfolio piece, like a short film or level in a video game.

“I was talking to some educators,” Steve remarks, and they seem to think more students these days come in with an understanding of the basic tools. If this is true, Steve wonders, can the students spend more time on the creative aspect of their craft? Nodding in agreement, Marty says they’ve definitely seen a change over the past 5 or 6 years. Although to get into the program you do have to meet a certain skill level, he’s seeing this skill-set in younger applicants. He believes this is largely in part to specialized high schools that are preparing their students better than some of the college-level applicants he’s seen. Finishing his thoughts, Marty says “the challenge is there’s this misconception that knowing how to use Photoshop makes an artist.” We know this is not true, so we do need to focus on the creative side of things. But, he admits, it helps not having to teach the basics. “I recall the days when we had to teach them how to use Word!”

Moving the conversation forward, Steve wonders, “How has the way Vancouver has risen affected the opportunities for your students when they’re graduating?” With candor, Marty replies, “We’ve been instrumental in the growth of the industry.” Former students from their first few classes, he explains, are now the leaders of large companies in Vancouver. They stay connected with them and recruit their students. He feels that the best way to support the growing industry in Vancouver is to “continually provide high quality entry-level talent to the industries.”

To this point Steve wonders if VFS has any impact on the tax incentives that draw so many productions to Vancouver. Marty states that their main interest as a school is furnishing the industry with the best talent. He does, however, “step up” and provide VFS input to any of the government-led decision-making that impacts the industry. You can’t have the talent without the industry or the other way around, he comments.

Steering the discussion in a new direction, Steve asks about VFS’s recent acquisition of new HP Z Workstations and how having access to the latest technologies can really impact students’ learning experiences. Marty explains that “we just deployed 775 brand new HP Z420 Workstations configured with AMD FirePro graphics cards.” Steve is impressed by this number, and the fact that the HP Z Workstations were all installed throughout the entire school over the course of one week. Their relationship with HP goes back 12 years, and Marty relates that it is actually a relationship that has been built over the years. HP is always at the table, they listen to us and they work with us. At VFS everything runs 24-7, 365 days a year- “the computers never get turned off.” That’s why they need a stable and reliable platform that can support multiple programs for gaming, film, and 3D graphics and that will work across all the different platform vendors students require without having any issues. At the end of the day, Marty illuminates, if you are a VFS student, you are paying for your education so we do not want the technology to get in the way of their creativity. Students need the latest and the greatest and VFS wants to maintain that all the time.

Reminiscing about the days of waiting around for computers to process their workload, Steve asks about how the improved, faster systems impact student creativity. There’s always compromise, Marty replies, and it depends on what you are doing and how you are doing it. For VFS, the infrastructure is important as well. In the end, they want to maximize the ways students can work. Everything is designed and integrated so they get the maximum performance for their environment. And, it is of great importance that they stay aligned with, and ahead of, educational requirements.

Out of curiosity, Steve asks how VFS ties its infrastructure together. Though not much involved, Marty says they did put in their own 20 GB fiber ring to have the capacity to run from a central location. This way, any of the 7 campuses can access the data center through the fiber ring. Actually, he continues, they ran fiber into all the individual classrooms and do the switching in each room- they wanted to make sure they had scalability and flexibility down the road as technologies continue to change.

“So have you worked with any of the HP DreamColor displays?” Steve queries. Yes, Marty shares, they recently acquired 6 of them for their new Avid suites so that students can utilize them for digital color correction. He enthusiastically says they are fantastic. Nodding, Steve continues, “they’re so much easier to use, half the cost, they’re 4K now, and, so much easier to calibrate”. Steve points out that this is particularly important when you need consistency across displays in a production environment. Agreeing with Steve, Marty says that’s one reason VFS likes a standardized platform. They have an excellent and dedicated IT staff, but at the end of the day there has to be consistency across the board in what they do. That’s what having the single HP Platform provides them.

The other part of the technology story for VFS is that they have an “evergreen mantra,” rotating their computers out for new technology every 3 years so they can stay ahead of the game. Deployment has become so much easier since their partnership with HP, he comments. On the server side, VFS also uses HP Servers and that leads to Steve wondering what he thinks workstation virtualization. Although Marty doesn’t think it fits for VFS right now, there’s always a possibility they will look at this in the future. “We encourage collaboration,” he remarks, and for now the data lives on servers and is accessed via HP Z Workstations and that works great for VFS students.

Drawing the interview to a close, Steve asks Marty about the school’s expansion into China. After 8 years of planning, Marty reveals, VFS will be partnering with Shanghai University. The Shanghai Vancouver Film School will begin 4 programs in the fall: film, 3D animation, sound design and makeup. Over the next 5-7 years Marty hopes to “replicate what happened here in Vancouver” and to help grow the industry and talent in that area.

Here’s a link to another video featuring HP and VFS.