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Hollywood, by way of Redwood

Sisler High School teacher creates successful, evolving digital-training program to take Winnipeg students to film school, video-game development, advertising and beyond

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/6/2019 (481 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

VANCOUVER — It’s an inevitably cloudy April day in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Here and there, the sun breaks through.

It feels like a good day for a make-or-break, career-defining presentation.

Former Sisler student Kyle Castro found success at the Vancouver Film School. (Randall King / Winnipeg Free Press)

Former Sisler student Kyle Castro found success at the Vancouver Film School. (Randall King / Winnipeg Free Press)

Water Street occupies a zone in the neighbourhood where the grunge of East Hastings is mitigated by the tourist-friendly trappings of Gastown. (Gassy Jack! The steam clock!)

Look closer throughout this district and you’ll see many old buildings operated, renovated and reinvigorated by the Vancouver Film School, eight in total.

In one such building, a nattily attired motion-design student named Kyle Castro is pitching a special project to a trio of design professionals (Frank Palmer, Bob Stamnes and Malcolm Levy).

The ad displayed on a flat-screen in the cosy pitch room is titled Mission Vega, touting a made-up set of state-of-the-art headphones — Vega — for a made-up company called Lyra. Castro is not selling the product. He is selling his own acumen in creating this elegant, tech-heavy, one-minute film.

A lot is riding on this presentation, especially because Vancouver Film School students aren’t graded in any traditional way. They simply come away from their intensive year-long courses with experience, a portfolio (or more likely a reel) and, hopefully, the tools they need to succeed in their chosen field of study, which ranges from film production, animation (3D and classical), acting, makeup design, sound design, game design and — Castro’s chosen field — digital design.

Alongside his project partner Tiffani Santos, Castro presents as cool and weirdly professional, belying the fact he’s a 19-year-old from Winnipeg’s North End. Stamnes, of the Vancouver advertising/design company Elevator Strategy, is impressed. He commends the professional quality of the ad with four precious little words:

"That spot could run."

 


Sisler High School teacher Jamie Leduc isn’t at all surprised to hear that his former student is capable of such maturity in dealing with professionals. Leduc is an award-winning teacher who heads up — and largely created — Sisler’s Interactive Digital Media program.

And Sisler not only taught Castro many of his design skills; the school also makes a point of ensuring students have the social skills to interact with the professionals who visit on a regular basis.

Sisler High School's Redwood Animation Studio instructor Jamie Leduc. (Photos by Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sisler High School's Redwood Animation Studio instructor Jamie Leduc. (Photos by Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Because a lot of these kids work with the industry so often, it becomes part of their everyday," Leduc says. "Something that we focus on in this class is getting up in front of the group and presenting to everyone, all the time."

So, yes, the students may learn fundamentals of coding and digital design. But they also get an education, Leduc says, in "all the soft skills, like shaking hands and making eye contact."

And... there could be more action!

Signs of Manitoba's growth as a film centre are as close as your local multiplex.

Consider that in the last two months, you've been able to go to a first-run theatre to take in Breakthrough, starring Chrissy Metz and Topher Grace, a faith-based tale set in Missouri and shot in Manitoba. It grossed US$50 million worldwide since its mid-April release, according to Box Office Mojo.

Signs of Manitoba's growth as a film centre are as close as your local multiplex.

Consider that in the last two months, you've been able to go to a first-run theatre to take in Breakthrough, starring Chrissy Metz and Topher Grace, a faith-based tale set in Missouri and shot in Manitoba. It grossed US$50 million worldwide since its mid-April release, according to Box Office Mojo.

A Dog's Journey, the sequel to A Dog's Purpose starring Dennis Quaid and Betty Gilpin, was released in mid-May and has grossed an even more impressive US$55 million thus far.

New in theatres Friday, the indie film JT LeRoy, starring Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, was shot here in 2017. And arriving under the radar at the Towne Cinema beginning Monday is Sorry for Your Loss, a dark comedy by former local boy Collin Friesen, starring Bruce Greenwood and Justin Bartha.

"We are witnessing a global growth in this demand for audio-visual content of all kinds: features, documentaries, any kind of episodic series," says Nicole Matiation, executive director of On Screen Manitoba, a local industry association representing more than 2,000 media-industry professionals.

"There's high demand and Manitoba is part of that story."

Matiation says production has more than doubled in size in the past three years, from about $100 million in 2016 to a record-breaking $269.4 million last fiscal year.

But with that growth comes an ever-growing need for skilled people to populate local film crews. In discussing shooting JT LeRoy, director Justin Kelly saw an upside in that Winnipeggers were largely content to leave papparazzi magnet Kristen Stewart alone during the production.

"We ended up shooting on the street in broad daylight and no one really bothered us ever," says Kelly. "So it was good, in that respect.

"But then the negative side would be a limited crew and talent pool," he said. "We had to bring a lot of people in from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver."

"As busy as it is right now, the production demand greatly exceeds the current labour pool of trained technicians, production personnel and craftspeople," says Louise O'Brien-Moran, manager of the film program for Manitoba Film & Music.

"If we had four or five more crews, we would have four or five more productions Our office is fielding calls for shows non-stop. Lack of trained crew is impeding further growth.

O'Brien-Moran says a province-led workforce strategy is needed for the industry to thrive.

And that makes Sisler High School's Interactive Digital Media program a crucial part of the equation for Winnipeg's industry, she says.

"Sisler is currently the leading institution to provide film-industry training and skills development that is feeding Manitoba’s need for crew," she says.

"The IDM program that Jamie Leduc leads has students that have developed real-world skills that enable them to have jobs as part-time animators instead of low-earning, entry-level jobs like many of their peers.

Some of the Sisler students who've secured scholarships to Vancouver Film School have returned to Winnipeg after their year there to work as assistant editors, camera assistants or in production offices, O'Brien-Moran says.

"By giving students a film stream starting in Grade 9 or 10, they are so polished in technical skills, interpersonal skills through collaborating and presentation skills, they are becoming a brand that production companies wish to hire," she says. "The video game company) Ubisoft recently remarked that the Sisler IDM program played an important role in their decision to choose Winnipeg for an office."

— Randall King

Visiting industry professionals come away impressed. Leduc displays a letter from former Pixar CFO Lawrence Levy: " I found your students to be respectful, smart, inquisitive and attentive. Their questions were as good as any I receive anywhere — and I’ve spoken at Harvard, Google and quite a few other places. They are a very special group."

Leduc, originally from Cornwall, Ont., earned degrees from the University of Ottawa. In 2007, he moved to Winnipeg with his wife ("she’s from here") and was hired at the behest of Sisler’s longtime principal George Heshka with an agenda to start a program that would encompass video, design and computers. By 2015, the IDM program was launched.

"We are at a point where we have 20 different creative courses being offered from Grade 9 through Grade 12. In addition, we have 12 staff members teaching specialized courses such as animation, concept art, film, sound design, visual effects, graphic design, photography, motion graphics, game design, virtual reality and app development," Leduc says.

"Which is unheard of for a publicly funded high school."

Sisler students brainstorm ideas on a whiteboard table in the school’s Redwood Animation Studio.</p>

Sisler students brainstorm ideas on a whiteboard table in the school’s Redwood Animation Studio.

Leduc acknowledges the pipeline between Sisler and the Vancouver Film School.

While visiting the school’s project management class, where about 25 students are amicably working together in groups on eight different animation projects, he asks for a show of hands how many have been accepted to VFS. Eight hands spring up.

It can be expensive, he says, even if all courses last just one year. The course in classical animation is about $25,000. The film production course tallies closer to $35,000.

“If you look at the amount of kids that are actually getting employed and working in the field, it’s fantastic.”

"If you throw in cost of living, that’s around $55,000, so it’s very difficult for our students to go out there," Leduc says.

It helps that, in the last four years, more than $395,000 in VFS scholarships have been awarded to 36 Sisler grads, including Kyle Castro.

"A lot of the kids that (have) already gone to VFS have graduated with honours and ended up working in the industry already," says Leduc. "Around half of the graduates are coming back and working in the local film industry right here, which is booming.

"If you look at the amount of kids that are actually getting employed and working in the field, it’s fantastic."


 

James Griffin is the president of the Vancouver Film School. (Supplied photo)

James Griffin is the president of the Vancouver Film School. (Supplied photo)

James Griffin, president of VFS, has a story to draw from his holster to illustrate why an immersive year-long film course may trump a more traditional four-year program at a university.

"Two guys came in to see us, a guy from Toronto and a guy from Vancouver," he recalls. "They were trying to decide between Ryerson and Vancouver Film School. So the guy from Vancouver decided to go to Ryerson and the guy from Toronto decided to go here.

"So a year later, the Toronto guy graduated and went to work in the industry. The Vancouver guy, four years later, graduated from Ryerson. And at that time the (VFS) guy was working in the industry (as) a producer.

"And he hired the guy from Ryerson."

In short, he says, Vancouver Film School, now in its 30th year of operation, has a practical attitude to getting the skills necessary to get a job as quickly as possible.

Eight students from Sisler are heading to Vancouver to continue their studies.</p>

Eight students from Sisler are heading to Vancouver to continue their studies.

"In the film industry, in all these industries, it’s about credits," Griffin says. "You can take four years, but you’re better off to be in the industry... over time, I realized the film industry and most entertainment industries are really just apprentice industries.

"It doesn’t matter where you graduate from, nobody is going to put a baton in your hand and get you to direct a $50-million film. It’s not going to happen. So the basic premise is, you start at the bottom and if you’re skilled, you work your way up quickly. If you’re talented and skilled, you work your way up even more quickly.

"So I guess the thinking was: get to the bottom as quickly as possible."


 

Sisler student Luisa Roscuata is headed to the Vancouver Film School in the fall. She came back to the class as a post-high student to add to her portfolio and mentor other students.</p>

Sisler student Luisa Roscuata is headed to the Vancouver Film School in the fall. She came back to the class as a post-high student to add to her portfolio and mentor other students.

So what happened to Kyle Castro? Well, Mission Vega earned an award for best overall and technical motion design at VFS, and ultimately an honours diploma in digital design.

"He’s been hired," says Leduc, the kind of teacher who keeps tabs on his former students. "He got his first gig around three weeks ago."

Yes, Castro starts next week working as a junior motion designer for Thinkingbox, a Vancouver-based interactive production studio.

"I’m currently looking to just work hard in my new position, as I start to settle and develop a lifestyle in the city," Castro says. "I expect to grow exponentially now that I’m fully into the industry with a job that I know will often challenge me to grow as a person and as a designer."

Vancouver’s gain may be Winnipeg’s loss. But, in tech especially, the jobs are there. Vancouver is the largest animation and visual effects hub in the world, the home base to more than 60 domestic and foreign companies.

But Castro promises Winnipeg hasn’t seen the last of him.

"I see myself visiting Winnipeg and Sisler often to inspire and educate the next generation of aspiring creatives and VFS students," he says. "At Sisler we sometimes have our alumni that went through VFS visit and do these little talks.

"So I’m looking forward to doing so and looking back at how amazing the Sisler program was."

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

 

A monster of a performance, if I do say so myself

Writer Randall King goes through a motion-capture exercise in Vancouver. (Vancouver Film School)

Writer Randall King goes through a motion-capture exercise in Vancouver. (Vancouver Film School)

Among the most impressive features of the Vancouver Film School is a fully-functioning motion-capture studio. 

For the uninitiated, motion capture catches the movements of live actors and translates the information to computers, where the data can be employed to create life-like digital creations, such as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Among the most impressive features of the Vancouver Film School is a fully-functioning motion-capture studio. 

For the uninitiated, motion capture catches the movements of live actors and translates the information to computers, where the data can be employed to create life–like digital creations, such as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Beyond Capture, run by Graham Qually is, first and foremost, a functioning studio space that movie studios, video-game companies and animation houses will utilize for commercial purposes. (If you played Mortal Kombat 11, you should know the game action of the characters was captured right here at Animation and Visual Effects Campus at the VFS.

Qually says the usage ratio breaks down to 30 per cent student and 70 per cent commercial. For students, it delivers a fully professional experience in a huge soundproof room where all the action is captured by 40 Vicon vantage cameras (valued at $25,000 each) and four HD reference cameras. 

Long story short, this is how I got to play a lava monster.

I was taken to a change room where I had to dress in tight black pants and top, all featured Velcro reflective markers capable of tracking my movement — such as it was, that outfit was tight — for the studio's array of cameras.

After doing a "T pose" — arms outstretched with feet casually apart — I was able to see my computer-generated self on a large TV monitor in the studio. My fellow performer, drafted for the presentation, was fellow Winnipegger Sam Batt, a graduate of VFS's acting program, and yes, of course, a former Sisler High School student.

He is a seasoned vet at motion capture, not because he studied visual effects, but because "all the programs are partnered," he explains.

"The students in the acting program are partnered with VFX students whenever they need actors for their projects," he says.

Batt is another Winnipegger who opted to stay in Vancouver after graduating, mostly working in short films with titles such as Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space.

"I’m gonna go back to Winnipeg eventually," he says. "But right now, I’m out here because my agents are out here."

If I tend to look the part of a lava monster, Batt is more suited to the role of the agile hero who fights the giant rocky villain with a sword.

In any case, I can appreciate the instantaneous nature of the motion-capture experience. Batt is directed to flash his motion-capture sword in a precisely defined swoop. I am directed to raise my hand, as if in pain, and eventually fall back into the molten magma from whence I came. And both actions can be seen simultaneously on the screen. 

As a longtime critic, I can't help feel the resulting footage would be appreciated by actors everywhere.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

Read full biography

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