Ben at the Pen: Sophomore

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Ben. From the look of things, you've been pretty busy. The last time we spoke with you, you hadn't begun going to DigiPen yet. So, let's start by setting the scene. Where are you living?

I'm living in a three-bedroom apartment in Redmond with two other DigiPen students—Steve Brookenthal and Josh Wittner. Both are first-year students in the computer-programming side of DigiPen. I couldn't have asked for better roommates really, and we're good friends now. Our apartment is about two miles away from DigiPen, so it's working out great. It was somewhat of a challenge finding a place to live in the Seattle area, since DigiPen has no on-campus housing. But they help you find roommates and give you suggestions on living accommodations in the area, so they do what they can. It ended up working out better than I could have imagined.

Can you tell us what the school looks like? Please describe your new environment for us.

The building is fairly nondescript inside and out. It doesn't look like a college at first glance, but I've gotten used to it. The rooms are all named after famous mathematicians and artists. There's a small library that has a lot of programming and 3D animation reference material. Of course, they get all the latest game magazines, and they archive all the old ones. Students can also rent Nintendo 64 and GameCube games from the library. We have two lunchrooms, each with arcade machines lining the walls. Most of the arcade cabinets came from Nintendo—like the Play Choice 10 machines and Donkey Kong Jr.—but we also have Gauntlet Legends and NFL Blitz in there. It's a good thing there aren't any really good arcade games in the school though. If we had Street Fighter II for instance, people wouldn't get any work done.

DigiPen students party too! Ben Hopper and Quinn Smith

Okay, now that we've heard the basics, let's get a little deeper. Can you tell us what your thoughts and feelings were once you actually started at this famous school?

After the first couple of weeks, I had a pretty good idea of what life at DigiPen would entail. At orientation, we (the first-year animation students) were told to get ready to work harder than we've ever worked before if we wanted to become professionals in the industry. Then classes started the next week and everyone was thrown to the wolves. Seriously, right from the beginning the workload was heavy.

The animation students take 20 credits hours a semester, which is a heavy course load no matter what college you attend. At DigiPen, the animation students are learning basic drawing theory, 2D animation principles, animation preproduction, creative writing and of course, 3D modeling and animation. That's a lot to digest, especially if it's all new to you. I was an English major and an Art Studio minor at the University of Kentucky before coming to DigiPen, so I felt comfortable in the drawing and writing classes. But 3D animation was completely new to me so it took a long time to warm up to 3D Studio Max, which is the software we use for our 3D projects.

Of course, I have classmates who were the opposite—they had previous experience with 3D modeling and animation, but found it difficult to adjust to other aspects of the program, such as basic drawing and 2D animation. But no matter what your previous experience is, DigiPen gives you plenty to do in all your classes. Overall, I would say DigiPen ended up being pretty much what I expected going in. I knew I it would be a lot of work, and I can honestly say I've never worked so hard in my life. In it's own way though, it's a lot of fun, too. I'm really comfortable there now, which is something I couldn't say at the beginning.

What's your day-to-day routine like? Do you even have time to play games?

In our drawing class alone we are responsible for 50 pages a week in our sketchbook. Just to keep up with my projects, I'm in the school from the time my first class starts, which is usually around 9-10 a.m. until 10 p.m. Monday-Friday. On Saturdays I'm there from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The building is closed on Sundays so that's my only day off. For the first couple months, I tried to keep up with my daily exercise schedule, which included playing soccer Tuesday through Friday, but once November rolled around I had to cut it out if I had any hopes of getting through this semester alive.

Basically, if you want to do well at DigiPen, you need to be at the school whenever its doors are open. And you better be working on projects while you're at school, otherwise you're just wasting your time. That doesn't leave much time to play games, but once in a while we'll take a break from work to play. Just today one guy in my class had a copy of Ikaruga on his Dreamcast, which he has hooked up to his computer monitor. I had to play that game—Treasure's games rock. There are some arcade games in the school lunchrooms, and at the beginning of the semester we were playing LAN deathmatches of the newest Unreal and Wolfenstein games in our computer lab. I only did that a few times though. It's addicting as hell, but there's too much at stake to waste your time at school like that.

Left to right, first-year animation students Ilya Nazarov, Colin Turner, Ben Hopper and Quinn Smith

On the weekends we sometimes get together to play games. I introduced my classmates to Super Dodge Ball on the NES, and they all hate the game now because I win all the time. My roommates won't even play it with me. A couple of times we had six-player Bomberman going on my Saturn. That was fun. I really don't play games all that much though. I did manage to pick up a Game Boy Advance at the Nintendo Store—which was probably a mistake. For a while I was playing either Tetris, Galaga, Gradius Galaxies, Advance Wars or Super Dodge Ball Advance every night before going to bed, but I've been so busy lately that I haven't touched my GBA in weeks. I like to unwind at home by playing my guitar or, strangely enough, watching World Cup games I recorded from this past summer.

Out of curiosity, what's the ratio of male to female students, and what are your classmates like in general?

There are a total of 14 females currently enrolled at DigiPen, six or seven in my animation class. The age range is all over the place. It's too bad that the school is so male-dominated, but personally I'm grateful for the female classmates that I do have as they add a nice dynamic to our group. It wouldn't be the same without them that's for sure. There aren't any girls in the second-year animation group, and I think it would really suck being in a class solely composed of guys. DigiPen is definitely not the place to meet women though. That might be a good thing because I'm so busy during the semester that I can't imagine First-year animation student Ted Lockwood sprawls out as he works on an animation project getting too involved in a relationship. Also, since there's no time to work during the semester, I'm on a tight budget, which doesn't help when it comes to dating.

It still sucks there aren't more girls at DigiPen though, and I'm sure the girls there now would tell you the same thing. Then again, maybe they like the male-female ratio. You'll have to find one and ask her yourself. I get along with pretty much everybody though. You spend so much time together that you get to know each other fairly quickly. We're a small group compared to the programming department, so it's a pretty close-knit community, and my classmates are a lot of fun. I'm speaking for the first-year animation class only, but I'm sure the second-year animation guys would back me up on this.

To close out the interview, I'd like to know if spending time at DigiPen has in any way changed your original plans, goals or ideas?

I guess they've changed a little. Right now at I'm a point where I'm not sure if I want to get into the video game industry or if I want to pursue a career in animation if and when I graduate in a year and a half. There are things I like about both fields, but my thoughts are that there's a wider audience to reach with feature film or television animation. Don't get me wrong, the audience for games is enormous, but I feel that it's limited to a particular demographic. With animation, you can reach people young and old, male and female, all over the world. Not so much with video games, although you can probably earn a higher salary in the game industry.

Apart from that though, I also think there's more potential to tell a moving story with animation, whereas games are more about playing than telling a story. I like to write, so I'm always going to lean toward the storytelling side of things. Also, I've been a little turned off lately with the trend in video games moving toward such extreme and irresponsible violence. I mean, a game like Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City is just ridiculous in my opinion. I don't have fun playing games in which all intelligence is thrown out the window in favor of gratuitous blood and gore. I realize a lot of people want that, and I guess there's a time and place for it, but hiring a whore, banging her in your car, and then beating her to death with a stick is a little much. Maybe it's good that we have the freedom to play games like that, but I really don't want to have a hand in making such games. Of course, I take the moral high ground now and if I get an offer to go work for Rockstar when I graduate I'll probably take it without thinking twice (if the money's good).

Even on Sundays, animation students at DigiPen get together for drawing sessions. This group of first-year 3D Computer Animation students just finished a day of drawing at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. From left to right, Anna Brunoe, Anthony Brunoe, Quinn Smith, Jay Doherty, Ben Hopper, Brett Bean, Sean Horton and Nate Weikert.

The game industry is huge and growing bigger every day, and games are becoming so sophisticated so fast that so these points I'm trying to make might very well be invalid. I guess we'll see what happens. We haven't done any work with games so far. Animation students don't get the chance to work on games until their second year. Perhaps my attitude will change once I get an opportunity to do some game-related work. Right now though, I just want to focus on getting my drawing and animation skills up to a professional level by the time I graduate from DigiPen. That needs to be my goal for the near future. If I can do that, my career will take care of itself.