Walter Schoenknecht /
02.08.2006 12:00 AM
Learn How to Learn or Get Out of the Way
Over the period of time I've been privileged to fill this space, I've noticed that some of the columns I've written could easily be classified into one of several categories. The most distasteful of these is the "Old Guy Whining" motif.

Some such topics are fairly straightforward: "I remember the good ol' days, when men were men, and videotape was two inches wide." Others simply make no sense: "These kids today don't even know how to register and balance a Plumbicon-tube camera!" as if that's a skill that ever added meaning to life.

The clear implication is, most often, that the old ways are better, and new stuff--ideas, technology, whatever--is somehow illegitimate.

GUILTY OF GRIPING

I've noticed that these "Old Guy Whining" pieces are invariably crowd pleasers. For me, there's no better way to generate reader mail than to take a stroll down memory lane, especially if I can say something inflammatory along the way.

Apparently, it gets readers' blood flowing to see these gripes and complaints dragged out into the cold light of day; and once you reach a certain point in your career, there are precious few things that get the blood flowing at all, hence these stories' popularity among "senior staffers."

So here I stand before you all, acknowledging this nasty little habit, and speculating as to its surprising appeal: It's tough to learn something new.

Wouldn't life be so much simpler if we could freeze our skillsets in time and space, and just keep doing what we've always done? Probably, but we'd be doing it alone, since nothing in all existence remains the same for long. Skin cells grow and wear away, hour by hour; the Wednesday winds in Chicago spent the weekend in the Yukon. Change remains the lone constant, and if you're going to continue to live, you'd better learn how to learn.

Here a quick question: When was the last time you attended a workshop or course on a technology you previously knew nothing about? When did you last sit down, turn off the phone, and complete a CD-, DVD- or Web-based product tutorial? What feathers have been added to your cap, or notches cut into your belt? There's nothing to fear here--life usually gets better when you learn new things.

I recently had an opportunity to re-evaluate my learning skills as I tackled a new piece of software, and the experience was a rewarding one. When I first received a copy of Particle Illusion from Wondertouch some months ago, I followed the usual new software strategy--blunt-force learning. In the past, that's never been a particularly effective method for me; more often the passage of time (wasted time, that is) deserves most of the credit for imparting the "gestalt" of how an application runs, if not the nuts-and-bolts details.

With Particle Illusion, I may have picked an easy target. Alan Lorence and the Wondertouch team have done an excellent job of creating a novice-friendly user interface and workflow for their powerful flagship app. If you're unfamiliar with Particle Illusion, it's a clever, highly controllable program for adding effects and creating textures using, well... particles. Particle rendering is used for some of the most difficult tasks in computer-generated imaging, such as water, fire and fog, but until recently, has been available only in more complex and costly animation packages.

Wondertouch has democratized this technology, making Particle Illusion available at a modest cost to artists, animators and editors at all levels.

IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION

Right out of the box, the new user can make things happen. Particle Illusion lets you preview the program's stunning "emitters," a feature that helps demystify magical effects like columns of fire, sparkling pyrotechnics and hydrant-sized streams of water. These aren't purely canned presets, either; every parameter can be modified and keyframed, permitting a daunting intricacy of control. And it's here where the learning curve steepens.

In fact, the potential for intricate adjustments is one of the attributes which has prevented Particle Illusion from being quickly and easily ported to an After Effects-compatible plug-in. Lorence still has plans such a plug-in, but cautions that it won't--and can't--replicate all the features of the standalone OS X and Windows versions. So if you want the whole enchilada, you need to learn more than blunt force can deliver, especially the tricks for handing off to and from After Effects.

Enter Aharon Rabinowitz, an accomplished animator and After Effects compositor. Partnering with the online community Creative Cow, Rabinowitz created a QuickTime-delivered video tutorial series packaged on a single DVD-ROM. His entertaining style drives the task-specific tutorials, and in no time at all, I'd seen and heard what I needed to make things work; turns out that it was actually fairly straightforward once you'd seen it done. As with all learning, however, there's seldom a single "right way" to teach, and although I'd read Wondertouch's documentation and even seen their online tutorials, it didn't click until Aharon taught it.

Did it work for me? Well, so far, I've created columns of fire for a "Wizard of Oz" takeoff, and shot pink steam out of people's ears. I've choreographed a skyscraper fire, including small explosions and big eruptions, and ultimately put it out with a big stream of water. I've thrown away that old stock reel with video footage of fireworks. Now, if I need them, I'll make my own, thank you very much. And they'll be spectacular.

I know that this was a small lesson, easily learned thanks to clever software and effective training materials. I'm facing a bigger training task as I migrate between editing platforms in the months ahead, and it's bound to be much harder. But this experience renewed my faith in my own ability to learn, and without that faith, I'd be condemned to blunt-force learning forever.

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at walter@mmgi.tv.


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