The students at Bethany College at MindFire are a little like kids let loose in a high-tech playground.
Yes, it’s a real institution of higher learning. But with 25 students and seemingly enough video and audio equipment to launch a movie studio, students don’t have to wait in line for a camera, green screen, motion-capture suit and other devices.
That’s what brought Bekah Brakebill, a 21-year-old Arkansas City resident, to the school in the Office This mall on East Harry.
“I heard it’s the only school around with all this equipment,” Brakebill said, taking a break from her class in the 3-D animation lab. “There’s a lot of technical stuff I’ve never seen before. I want to keep up with the times, so to speak.”
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The school offers bachelor’s of arts degrees in two areas: 3-D computer animation, and digital filmmaking and visual special effects. Certificates requiring a shorter period of study – 22 weeks, or a semester and a half – can be obtained in four areas: 3-D animation, video game design, digital filmmaking and audio recording. The school hopes to offer a bachelor’s degree in video game design by fall.
MindFire is “the only sole digital and media arts college between Kansas City and Denver, right here in Wichita” and is the only college in the state to offer a stand-alone bachelor’s degree in digital arts, said Ed Pogue, its director.
The school is just 3 years old. Wichita entrepreneur Max Cole, who owns Office This, launched Mindfire Academy in 2008, spending millions on equipment. But the academy never took off. In 2012, MindFire entered into a partnership with Bethany College, a small liberal arts college in Lindsborg.
“It’s a partnership between an institution of higher learning and a private business,” said Pogue, a former art teacher who has worked for Bethany for 16 years. Such partnerships are fairly common between universities and industry, but in the arts, “it’s kind of unique,” he said.
“This really opened up a market for us to have a presence in Wichita,” he added.
Bethany College at MindFire has agreements with Butler Community College, Hutchinson Community College and Cowley Community College that allow students to transfer credits from their freshman and sophomore years. They then spend four semesters at MindFire earning the remaining credits needed for a bachelor’s degree.
“If they are good students and maintain at least a C average, we can make sure that happens in two years,” Pogue said. “That’s our promise.”
A certificate course costs about $10,000, while courses for the bachelor’s degree run about $18,000 per academic year, Pogue said, adding that many students qualify for financial aid or scholarships.
The technology Brakebill referred to is spread over seven large classrooms and studios. The film studio includes an overhead camera, a 360-degree camera and what Pogue said is “probably the largest green screen” – a backdrop used for combining images – in the area; it measures about 40 by 30 by 14 feet.
Another studio holds what Pogue says is the region’s only motion-capture stage, which is used to develop 3-D animation. There’s a recording studio, a lab devoted to special effects and another where students learn drawing and clay sculpture to teach them principles of anatomy.
The school has 10 instructors, all of whom are part time, “because they’re working in the industry,” Pogue said.
“Our goal is teach (students) how to tell a story” using digital equipment. “We want to help them find their voice.”
Students also learn about marketing, copyright law, resume-writing and real-life working conditions in the digital world. Many will need to develop entrepreneur skills if they are self-employed freelancers, plus the ability to work with other producers based in other cities, states and even countries.
“It’s a global market,” Pogue said.
Brakebill, who wants to create the “environment” behind the action in video games, said it’s a challenging curriculum.
“The standards are very high, but that’s a good thing.”