Some of you may have noticed a new banner ad flashing around ToP promoting Fire for Effect Studios Miniature Sculpting courses. These online courses are taught by veteran miniature sculptor James Van Schaik who asked us here at ToP to give him a honest review. I am going to do my best to break down my experience with the two "courses" I sampled. My higher education was based in both fine art and graphic design and over the years I have taken numerous online classes mostly to learn new or updated software. Hopefully my experience with these will help here.
Those who can, do; those who can't teach
I first heard this saying in relation to one of my design instructors, thankfully in this case that old saying is just not true. James has over 20 years of experience in the model sculpting industry and has worked with virtually every major brand. You can check out his work here on flickr or follow his blog here. He has been teaching for the past seven years and seems to have a real passion for it. You don't just create this level of content because you are trying to ride a paycheck. Probably the most important part of any learning experience (besides your own initiative) is the teacher and I feel he is extremely well qualified and highly dedicated to it.
A Matter of "Course"
There is a huge difference between a youtube how-to and an ecourse. I will confess that when I was asked to do this I thought that it would be a website linked over to a few youtube videos with a bunch of trolls in the comment section. I was very happy that proved wrong. The courses are being run through WizIQ.com which is a robust online course hosting site. Over the years I have taken several online classes for continuing education and with only a few exceptions they have been a miserable experience. Some try to adapt a forum or blog as a classroom or others are even worse when they try to create their own system from scratch. It would seem that whoever created WizIQ finally got it right. Everything about it from registering to commenting on the content was easy. I received an email letting me know I was enrolled, clicked it, bam! I was in and learning.
Each course also has its own "feed" for comments and questions that are private only to those who paid. This helps create a safe environment for students to pose noob questions or make comments with out fear of getting trolled. James has taken this even further by creating a private forum for each course that students can post photos of their work and offer each other advice and critiques. One of the most important aspects of an education in any form of art or design is getting constructive feed back on your work. These courses provide that space and from what I see James is quick to respond as well.
The syllabus lists courses you may wish to take prior to the one you are in. Since students are allowed to pick any course they want I would like to see that these were also listed on the website so you know before you buy the course. In the videos I viewed he does reference the Fundamentals videos and I feel like I should have watched them first.
When I talked to James he let me know of two things that aren't obvious and influenced his decision to use WizIQ. First is that they don't have a limit on class size so he can have any number of students. Second and probably the coolest is that it allows downloading of the content. Once you purchase a course you can easily download all the HD videos and keep them for later reference. One thing he doesn't like himself was that when streamed from the site the videos do so at a low (not HD) setting. This makes the ability to download the videos important for those wanting to view them in HD.
He informs me that he is almost done with a "class tour" module that will be added to all the courses to help explain the WizIQ platform to new students. Myself, I can say that everything felt intuitive and easy to use.
The two videos I got to see were the cigar and mustache QuikTec videos. I know next to nothing about video production but I think the quality is top notch. I was streaming them full screen on my 27" iMac and the quality didn't suffer at all. The first time I didn't know that I could download them to view in HD. I think it is testament to the quality of the production that even streaming the low quality I was extremely pleased. After learning I could download the video I did and was stunned by the level of detail viewable.
Lighting was good and the camera steady even if a tiny bit slow to focus at times. He does work impressively close to the lens to show details at the largest size possible. He talks you through each step in a calm soothing voice and the video moves in real time. In full screen mode it is easy to bump your space bar to pause so you can watch him then work to catch up.
… AND Quantity?!
The Kickstarter for this project ended in December 2013 and only a few short months later there is an impressive amount of courses listed. A full 77 by my count. Now, not all of the listed courses are available yet. For most of them you are preordering with all courses on track to be available by July of this year. When it is all done it will be a staggering amount of content.
QuikTec - which are easy to do, 15 minute modules that take you through a fine detail technique.
Basic Sculpting - Looking to learn how to do some minor changes to your miniatures and models, these are the courses to take.
Intermediate Sculpting -Want to add additional knowledge to your sculpting and modeling skills? These courses are for anyone who is ready to take their sculpting and modeling to the next level.
Advanced Sculpting - Take your modeling and sculpting to the top level. Designed for the advanced modeler and converter, you will learn advanced sculpting techniques that will allow you to sculpt the most detailed and unique textures, effects and details.
Professional Sculpting - These courses are for the journeyman student who has graduated from a modeller and hobbyist and wants to take their craft to the next level and learn to sculpt their own figures from scratch.
I don't know how it is in other countries but in the U.S. every campus of higher education has a book store. As a general rule the campus store sells all the materials any instructor lists in their syllabus. Head on over to the F4E Pro-Tools store if you need any of the tools required in your courses. Even if you don't decide to take any courses this is a great resource for sculpting and conversion tools.
Knowledge is power and all power has a price. I really don't want to scare anyone off with the price tag associated with some of the Pro level courses so I am going to focus on the ones that I will for sure be taking in the future myself, the advanced level. How much would you pay for the perfect bit to swap out on a conversion? How many times have you bought a whole kit just to get the one bit that you needed to swap? What if you could just instead learn to sculpt that bit yourself for less than the kit cost? I would pay for that without flinching. At the time I wrote this most the courses are heavily discounted and so you can take the advanced courses for $25. QuikTec are only $10 (less than I have payed for bits in the past) and I can honestly say I learned some thing from what is labeled for an entry level hobbyist. Based on what I experienced I can hardly wait to see what I learn from two or three of the advanced level courses. Personally, I would say for sure that the courses are priced fairly, yes even the pro levels. I have personally have payed (or made my employer pay) much more for much less.
Overall I was extremely impressed with the whole experience. James is an experienced and knowledgeable instructor dedicated to teaching others his passion. The WizIQ format provides an easy to use and intuitive vehicle not just to deliver content but also creates a safe classroom environment for questions and collaboration. The content is high quality, highly detailed, packed with knowledge and moves at a comfortable pace. In my opinion the prices are fair for what you get (at least on the QuikTec videos which are what I sampled). I am really excited to take some of the more advanced courses once they are available and would strongly recommend them to others in the hobby.
I did not try to actually sculpt a cigar or mustache. Regardless I did learn several things that I have done wrong in the past and also now have a small shopping list of tools to pick up that with practice should make stuff easier.
One last note. Don't think that just watching a video once will make you a pro sculptor. You are not buying access to a video, you are buying into an education. As always your education experience will only be as good as your level of dedication to it. This is especially true when learning anything creative and only compounded by self guided courses like these. Practice is paramount and failures inevitable. You must be willing to put in the time and analyze what you did wrong when you fall short of expectations. Learn to embrace constructive criticism from your peers and grow from it. Challenge yourself and figure out what it takes to keep your motivation up. If you put as much effort into digesting the knowledge James is putting forth as he did to create it you WILL improve your hobby.
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