Visual effects (commonly referred to as VFX) is a branch of animation – many of the schools mentioned on this list have VFX or animation programs that will appeal to students interested in developing a career in this promising industry.
So what are VFX, exactly? The filmmaking process involves designing or manipulating anything on-screen which does not exist in the real world.
From creatures and characters to objects and environments, VFX often involves combining physical creations or computer-generated imagery (CGI) with live-action footage.
The majority of VFX can be divided into three categories – CGI, compositing, and motion capture (MOCAP) – which most of the schools on this list expose students to as part of their degree programs.
CGI can be used to create 3D models of virtually anything. Compositing necessitates a green screen and involves manipulating two distant elements to make it look like they are in the same location.
Motion capture is exactly what it sounds like – recording an actor’s movements and facial nuances and applying them to a CGI actor or object.
In 2020, the global VFX industry topped $26 billion, and it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11% from 2022 to 2027.
There has been no better time than now for students to delve into this exciting career field, and the schools featured on this list offer outstanding facilities, equipment, and opportunities for interested students.
Here are our picks for 10 of the best visual effects (VFX) colleges in the US.
Gnomon School of Visual Effects (Los Angeles, CA)
The Gnomon School of Visual Effects – known as the “MIT of VFX” – was founded in 1997 by creature development artist Alex Alvarez, who has worked on films like Star Trek, Prometheus, and Avatar.
Ranked as the #1 VFX School (worldwide) and the #5 Game Design School in California in 2020, Gnomon is like an ultimate playground for students interested in building a career in VFX.
Situated miles (or in some cases, yards) away from institutions like Disney, Nickelodeon, Netflix, and Riot Games, Gnomon’s 35,000 sq. ft. campus includes a virtual laboratory, green screen stage, library, and four drawing classrooms.
The school has graduated over 700 students, 96% of whom are currently employed in the entertainment design or digital production industries.
Gnomon students can choose to pursue an option of programs based on their goals. The four-year BFA degree helps students hone their design and technical skills to compete within the media industry. BFA candidates can focus on a general curriculum or concentrate on either game art or visual effects.
Alternatively, the Certificate in Digital Production is a full-time, two-year program geared for those who have an existing art background and wish to pursue a career in the VFX industry.
The Foundation in Art & Design is a one-year program that helps aspiring artists develop a full portfolio, while learners also have the option to enroll in individual online or in-person courses.
Gnomon stands out as a school that offers excellent programs based on the needs of a diverse body of students.
Those who participate in the BFA program create a reel for their final showcase, and Best-of-Term awards are presented to students who submit reels for characters, environments, effects (like explosions), animations, and rendering.
Savannah College of Art and Design (Savannah, GA)
SCAD grads have earned Academy Awards for their work on films like Toy Story 4, Avengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
In fact, in 2020 alone, 86 SCAD VFX alumni contributed to a total of 16 Academy award-nominated films!
The SCAD VFX program is ranked as one of the Top 10 VFX Schools in the World, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and the Red Dot Design Rankings named SCAD as the #1 University in the U.S. for four consecutive years.
At SCAD, students can earn a BFA, MA, or MFA in visual effects. For the BFA, students take 35 hours in foundation studies, which mainly focus on drawing, color, and design. Their 60 hours of general education courses range from topics in communication to culture and art history.
The major curriculum – which consists of 75 hours – immerses students more fully in their desired concentrations. Students take courses in techniques specific to matte painting or digital lighting and receive credits for completing an internship.
Ringling College of Art & Design (Sarasota, FL)
The Computer Animation major at Ringling College of Art & Design was named the #1 Animation Program in the U.S. by Animation Career Review, voted the #1 3D Animation School in the World by The Rookies, and #1 Animation Program by College Magazine – it is one of the most highly-regarded programs on this list!
The Computer Animation Department has been led by Jim McCampbell since 2000, who shares that the acceptance rate is highly selective (around 25%, typically) and that approximately 75 recruiters visit campus on an annual basis – usually in the springtime – to view senior student projects.
The 17 instructors who make up the department are mostly Ringling alumni themselves!
Students take 42 hours of general education curriculum and a program curriculum of 66 hours, where they build their knowledge in four key areas: visual development, traditional animation, story development, or 3D animation.
In the fourth year of the program, students have the chance to receive valuable feedback from top film studio representatives. Many students have created and edited original films that have won Student Academy Awards.
Lesley University (Cambridge, MA)
The BFA in Visual Effects at Lesley University consists of 120 credits.
Students choose a VFX specialty – such as 3D modeling, compositing, or rendering – based on their professional goals.
Many of Lesley’s classes are project-based, providing students with hands-on experiences designed to prepare them for careers in VFX.
For example, in IANIM 4300 (Creating Worlds), students develop a capstone project while working in collaboration with filmmakers and animators on large-scale films or projects. In IDFLM 3500 (Compositing & Visual Effects), students learn in a green screen studio and build totally original cinematic worlds.
Lesley’s facilities don’t leave students wanting for much – their campus holds a 1,000 sq. ft. green screen room, a 3D fabrication studio, a render farm, and state-of-the-art tools like optical motion capture suits.
In addition to learning in these exceptional spaces, students also participate in internships with organizations like the Boston Children’s Hospital, Northern Light Productions, and White Snake Projects.
These experiences are designed to prepare Lesley students for employment opportunities in the greater Boston area and beyond.
An education at Lesley can be particularly lucrative, with the average salary of VFX designers totaling $70,000 per year and projected to increase 4% from 2019 to 2029.
Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, RI)
At RISD, students can obtain a BFA in Film, Animation, and Video (FAV).
One of the school’s greatest assets is its award-winning faculty, showcasing works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the London Film Festival, and the International Film Festival in Rotterdam.
FAV majors can focus on live-action, animation, or a hybrid studies program. They benefit from participation in festivals, visits with successful artists, exposure to critical feedback loops, and hands-on opportunities to produce films in a wide range of genres.
The FAV program is intimate, with around 150 undergraduate majors participating at any one time. Junior and senior degree candidates screen their projects to audiences in the spring and collaborate on complex projects involving a combination of storyboarding, programming, and cinematography techniques. Sophomores and first-year students gain familiarity with the major through a series of short assignments meant to help them build a foundation in digital media.
RISD maintains up-to-date editing software and workstations that students can use, at no extra cost.
Many alumni have gone on to shape the appearance and impact of animated shows like The Simpsons, while graduate Gus Van Sant has earned Best Director Oscar nominations and awards for directing films like Good Will Hunting, Milk, and Finding Forrester.
California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, CA)
The California Institute of the Arts offers over 70 degree programs, including a BFA in Film & Video or a BFA in Experimental Animation – students in one degree pathway will frequently collaborate with students from the other.
The BFA in Film & Video introduces students to digital editing, color correction, grading, and production sound. In their final years, junior and senior students undergo an Undergraduate Critique, where they are expected to produce a complex, ambitious project.
Faculty, alumni, and students who graduate from the BFA in Computer Animation consistently earn top awards at global festivals – the program boasts an enduring international reputation for superior animation production.
Computer animation students work hand-in-hand with a faculty mentor, and also benefit from the tutelage of recruitment professionals, visiting visual artists, and internship supervisors.
The California Institute of the Arts further stands out due to its excellent opportunities for student exchange.
There are four cities/universities where CIA students focusing on film and video or computer animation can apply to spend a semester learning and growing as professionals: Jerusalem, Prague, Paris, and Berlin.
The Paris program, in particular, focuses on character animation, while the other three programs are more focused on film and video.
School of Visual Arts (New York, NY)
Classes at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) are taught by over 60 working professionals from companies like Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks.
Classes take place in innovative computer labs using software and hardware found in up-to-date animation and VFX studios – students can also access this technology off-campus on their own devices!
The SVA’s Sound Studio includes a mixing room and recording booth with exceptional acoustic quality.
In the Production Studio, students can film real or digital actors in a MOCAP suit, which can record the movements of a human actor or object, upload them to a computer drive, and apply them to a 3D character!
Students at the SVA can obtain a BFA in Computer Art, Computer Animation, and Visual Effects.
Outside of learning skills required to be successful in entertainment-related fields, students in this program also gain experience with performing simulations, aiding in forensic investigations, and completing medical procedures.
University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts (Los Angeles, CA)
From Shonda Rhimes to John Singleton, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts is home to alumni and faculty who have earned Golden Globes, Emmys, Oscars, Pulitzers, and NAACP Leadership Awards; in fact, the school was recently named the #1 Film School by The Hollywood Reporter.
A recent Disney original documentary film – Sophie & The Baron – was directed and edited by two USC School of Cinematic Arts alumni who collaborated with the highly esteemed photographer, Baron Wolman.
The project is currently shortlisted for the 2022 Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject.
There are two VFX programs that students can enroll in at USC: the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts and the Interactive Media & Games Division.
The BFA in Animation and Digital Arts commences with an exploration into the history of animation and the fundamentals of design.
In Year 2, students experiment with storyboarding and 3D animation.
By their senior year, students work to complete a senior project and/or internship in the cinematic arts.
The BFA in Game Art focuses more on digital media and VFX within a video game context, so students can expect to gain exposure to the principles of CGI, game interface, and coding.
Academy of Art University (San Francisco, CA)
The School of Animation and Visual Effects at the Academy of Art Institute is highly regarded – it was ranked #2 in Top Animation Master’s Programs in America, #12 in Top Animation BFA Programs in America, and #13 in Top Private Animation Schools in America by Animation magazine.
Additionally, it received a #3 ranking as the Top VFX School in America for three consecutive years by The Rookies.
Their facilities – including Studio X and the rLAB– are a major component of the Academy’s appeal.
Students in Studio X collaborate in-house on student-led projects that involve real-life clients. For example, alum Alyce Tzue recently developed a 3D animated short film – Soar – that won first place in Student Animation at the Student Academy Awards.
The Remote Lab (rLAB) enables students to transform their laptops or desktop computers into workstations equipped with top-of-the-line VFX software.
In addition to excellent facilities and equipment, the Academy boasts an experienced faculty – members have worked on films like The Lion King, Terminator 2, and The Fifth Element.
FAT Tuesdays (Feature Animation Training) are Tuesday evening classes taught by film and animation industry pros – current students receiving training in developing a character’s mental processes and enhancing the emotional aspects of their characters.
Students can earn an AA, BFA, MA, MFA, or certification in Animation & Visual Effects. For the BFA, students choose a primary area of emphasis among the following topics: VFX, 3D modeling, 3D animation, 2D animation and stop motion, or storyboarding.
Classes at the Academy are hands-on.
In a class like ANM 108 (Cinematics for Animation and VFX), students learn how to board, shoot, and edit an entire film. They will also spend a large part of the class analyzing film content examples and justifying various production choices.
In a higher-level class like ANM 206 (Producing for Animation and Visual Effects 1), students get the chance to produce various commercial projects and receive one-on-one training from the creation to the delivery of their reels.
Senior students create a portfolio of their best work and gain assistance with developing a brand identity, reel packaging, and stationary systems.
Columbia College Hollywood (Los Angeles, CA)
The impressive list of faculty at Columbia College Hollywood have collaborated as editors, sound professionals, and cinematographers on over 150 motion pictures, over 2,500 hours of television, and over 200 films featured in global festivals.
Students attending Columbia College Hollywood can pursue a BFA in Visual Effects, focusing specifically on animation, compositing, or digital modeling.
The animation focus includes courses on advanced creature and dialogue design – students also have the opportunity to work with a highly complex, computer-operated puppet rig!
Compositing is the art of combining live-action film footage with digital characters, environments, or objects.
To do this, students gain familiarity with green screens, miniature models, CGI, and painted environments. Those interested in digital modeling specialize in making organic, living creatures and environments, as well as inorganic surfaces and mechanical objects.