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Learning From Tutorials 43 Comments

James White of Signal Noise writes about learning from tutorials vs learning on your own:

If you only do tutorials without exploring things on your own, then you learn only 1 thing: how to read. They’re a wonderful place to start, but it’s up to you after that. You should figure out how to do that thing you want to make instead of waiting for the tutorial to emerge. What does Fabio[1] do before he writes his great tutorials? He figures it out.

His post cuts to the heart of the difference between learning from watching and learning by doing. To be clear, I learned a TON from watching tutorials. They are a super fun and practical way to learn. If it weren’t for people like Brian Maffitt, Tim Clapham making great video tutorials for After Effects and Cinema 4D, I never would have gotten into this stuff. It’s one of the reasons I make tutorials today. To try and give back and help the next kid like me that is looking for good quality tutorials online.

Like James, However, I have always learned the most when trying to figure out how to do it on my own. Seeing something cool and trying to figure it out on my own is always WAY more fun, rewarding, and educational than following someone else’s directions.

Like most great things[2], moderation is key. Watch all the tutorial you wan’t, but for every hour of learning from tuts, spend four hours playing and experimenting with those concepts. Try this. After watching a tutorial, instead of just following it verbatim, try to see how you can use that technique in a different way. Maybe combine two tutorials together or try to use it with a logo or your name instead of just primitives. Experiment, combine, test, and break. Anyone can follow a recipe perfectly. But, be sure to combine all of what you learn and make something that doesn’t have step by step directions. That’s where the real learning happens.

1. Fabio from Abduzeedo.

2. Beer, Coffee, High Fives, Rage Against The Machine, etc.

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  1. FIRST.

    ok, seriously. Here’s how I apply what I learn from tutorials:

    When I’m stuck, in a rut, or need to know how to accomplish what I lack in knowledge, I look to tutorials. Because I need to see it and understand the why & how. Merely COPYING what I learn in the tutorial and re-purposing it for use on my end defeats the purpose of the spread of knowledge.

    /my 2 cents

  2. Trevor

    Oh good, I was hoping you would find this article. I read it and enjoyed it and really thought about what place tutorials have among designers. They are like a quick fix, and that is why I enjoy this site so much, you post what you will be making, then I try to recreate it before watching the tutorial and cross-examine my methods with another designer’s method

    • Great point. I like posting the result before the tut comes out for exactly that reason. It’s another great way to learn before watching a tutorial.

      • “…posting the result before the tut comes out…” :

        – Yes and that’s the same with Robert Leger, I try very often to make it on my own before watching the tutorial too I think it’s the best way to learn.

        • -Yes!., that is the way., in my case., actually., i’m doing a ID for a client., and .. i mix a 20% of tut’s, with 60% of my “baby steps” in cinema.. and 20% of intuition… and the result is amazing., , anyway., THX a LOT!., to those guys that post tutoriasl., because of them, i get into C4D with more confidence…, and obvious, THX GORILLA. (asap i’ll send to you my work…)

  3. Couldn’t agree more. It’s even basic knowlegde imo. Sadly not everyone thinks this way. I’ve had several encounters with people copying my work. Design is suppose to be something you ‘build on’ and not ‘build from’, that makes any sense..

    I also get the feeling people don’t WANT to look further, but that’s very bad practice (for a designer).

  4. fasteddie

    I would say to anyone starting, if you have never used any 3D program before, that you SHOULD most definitely have a period of pretty much just watching tutorials to get a good understanding of the software.

    Picking the right tutorial sites like this one, Digital Tutors, FXPHD, Motionworks etc… that in itself can really help – a structured learning path really is important.

    The notion that an absolute beginner can watch a few tuts then just go in and produce amazing results all of their own creation….well, sorry I believe it takes time and dedication.

    Once your confidence grows then you should step away a bit from the tutorials and make your own stuff but I think this takes time.

    Also, no one seems to comment on this, but not everyone chooses this career path from the age of 16 – it’s great if you are still at school and have bags of time to learn this, but if you are already working full-time and want to move into a career in motion graphics, that requires real dedication and commitment….just my two cents….

  5. Before I started watching VFX tutorials I used to use quicktime to skip forward frame by frame in videos of things I was interested in. For example, I worked out that when they were flying in Heroes, it was just a very blurry image, no complicated 3D CGI stuff like I was thinking, basic compositing after effects. I successfully managed to make a video of myself flying and this really opened my mind to the world of After Effects.

    I watched a lot of project based tutorials while I was at uni and really got into the Video Copilot tutorials then replicated what I’d learned. I shared these on Youtube and Facebook so people could see what sort of stuff I could do.

    Each tutorial usually teaches some new function that the software does etc, and by practising the methods from the tutorial it sort of gets planted into your memory.

    Back when I was at Uni, I’d get a lot of requests from fellow film students asking me if it were possible to do certain effects that theirr films required, and these were not specific to the tutorial.

    In moments like that it’s not a panic where you’re thinking OH NO, THERE IS NO TUTORIAL OUT THERE TELLING ME HOW TO FLUSH A GUY DOWN A TOILET (I seriously got this request). You have to think about what techniques you know and experiment. I usually do everything twice, once as a learning curve and then once again for the actual product.

    Test shoots even got me extra credit from my lecturers as I was the only person who’d actually gone and made a test video to show what I was attempting to do in my full project.

    I tell people that I can do absolutely anything and to be honest, that’s not entirely true, but I can usually do a satisfactory job of what I’m asked for…

    I’m just lacking in paid requests! Haha.

  6. Alan A.

    Fun fact while exploring, I often end up finding a technique for doing something absolutely not related to what I first wanted to do.

    To me, learning is just about knowing the mechanics of the tool(s) we have. Once you know them, you’re able to do anything.
    How you actually use and combine them however, I call it talent.

  7. Jason

    The old phrase, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”
    It’s seems to me that good tutorials are like good teachers. They inspire rather than direct. I’ve always personally liked it when a tutorial author states, “and you could use this technique for this, and this, and maybe even this!” Those statements give you no instruction but are pure inspiration. Sometimes you just need the first push to get going. I have the problem I call “blank canvas block”. If I have no ideas, requests, or constraints I can’t ever think of anything. But once someone suggests an idea (or I have the occasional one) or I am required to do a job to look a certain way then the ideas finally start flowing…and usually end up too crazy to boot! I personally get the MOST out of the 5-Second projects from Nick and the Xpresso tasks from Robert Leger. They embody the essence of teaching thru inspiration IMO.

  8. Mowbray

    Listen.. the best part IS experimenting… how many people here have randomly done cool shite by accident and can’t duplicate it say Oi! Stop thinking so much.. as you start experimenting write it down… DO IT!

  9. jacob

    As a guy that watches a lot of tutorials (from here and digitaltutors) I can say that most of the time its a specific skillset that I should have learn on my own, and sometimes, It’s not really beneficial to what I want to do and I’m just learning it for the sake of learning it.

    just being honest!

    • MichiSchwarz

      Thats what my intention is too. I use Cinema for illustration purposes als a technical writer and don’t really need After Effects at the moment. Adding to it, that the company doesn’t have this program yet. But I find it interesting and therefore watch the tutorials. Broadens the view and who knows, might come in handy one day. And: when facing a problem how to illustrate a task, I often remember a video where this exact problem was solved for a whole other project. And that is where a tutorial is starting to make sense: adapt the learned content to your needs.

  10. Dominic Moore

    My technique is to use tutorials like someone is shining a light on part of the program i either don’t know about or had forgotten about. I watch the first 30 secs to get the general idea of what the person is doing/ using etc.. and then go and try and do the same thing without watching the rest of the tutorial. For example “hair dynamics”. I didn’t know it existed until i watched a tutorial but i didn’t have the patience to watch the whole thing so i just taught myself the rest. Sometimes it’s good to quit halfway through and figure out the rest!!

  11. Some of my favorite tutorials begin with the phrase: Today we’re going to look at the ____ tool.”

    I use tutorials for two basic reasons. The first are these sort of questions:
    How do you use all those deformers anyway? What does this tag do? What about that tag? What happens when I press the big red button? What does that specific GI setting change?

    I also use tutorials when I’m stuck on one particular thing. I think that 1+2+3+4 should equal 10, but when I do it I only get 11. So I look for a tutorial on the issue, or maybe help post in a forum, and find out that (DOH!) I added 5 at the end instead of 4.

  12. simply put if you made it following a tutorial it should never end up on your reel
    or be CTRL + V’ed into a job.

    (though we’ve all done it once early on)

    Often learning the Tutorial, forgetting most of it then having to re-apply the techniques months later in relation to your current project ends with the most interesting outcomes.

  13. Tutorials are not so much about the end result…the true power within a tutorial is the technique and concepts posed…that is what you should pay attention to and apply in your own experimentation.

    I feel those that use the end results of a tutorial or rip work do not progress…and really aren’t a threat..immoral…but not a threat. They won’t have the acquired knowledge through hands on experimenting and frankly, the passion that those who truly create utilize.

    Think about it this way…if all you know is what you learned from tutorials, tutorials that are available to everyone, then how are you to stand out amongst the others to a client or employer?

  14. JAMES

    i hate people post something that 100% in the tutorial.
    (youtube & vimeo)

  15. Brett Perry

    I seldom ever copy tutorials online. I watch them and take note of the background techniques that they illustrate. I file away the techniques and then am able to use them in real world situations in my work. The best sites (like this one) seem to do what I find myself doing all the time. I see something I like and try to figure out how it was done and try to recreate it on my own, like TNT’s particular ring logo or Syfy’s intersticials. I even like challenges like when Andrew Kramer does something in 3D Max and says, “It would be hard to accomplish the same look in AE.” Well you know I’m going to take a whack at that one.

  16. wow Ive been searching on how to properly follow a tutorial an get the most out of it for the past two days an this lil thing you write helped allot, thank you 🙂

  17. I can say that tutorials really help you feel comfortable with the software, wich, at the beginning, can be really frustrating.

    My first tests with Cinema 4D didn’t take me anywhere (or almost) and it was really frustrating, but thanks to tips around the web and, of course, Nick’s website, I started feeling more comfortable and started moving my own steps into Cinema.

    (can you recognize some popular tutorials names? 🙂 )
    these are just a few of my experiments, I have plenty of folders on my hard drive, full of stupid experiments.
    Do a lot, especially on your own. It will develope your style and you’ll learn even more than what a tutorial can teach you.

    It takes time, it will make you feel uncomfortable, it will feel sometimes pointless, but you’ll see results pretty soon.

    Take your time to listen to the first part of this podcast by Nick:
    you’ll get the point.
    Make stuff, every month, week or day and see how better you’ll get.

  18. Wesley

    Wait a minute. Abduzeedo doing great tutorials?


  19. Martijn

    We start up a project. We brainstorm about what we want to achieve and then we search the internet for ways to achieve what we want. In that way we find tutoirals that make reach our goal. We never work the other way because it’s just such a waist of time if you don’t implement things you learn, directly into a project.

  20. Nick, I feel like there are two types of tutorials.

    1. The educational tutorial teaching techniques that are rather hard to figure out on your own. Your tutorials fall into this category. Without any sort of knowledge base like a book, manual etc., I would have a very hard time figuring out all of this stuff in Cinema4D. (Photoshop is a much easier app to learn so I’ve learned a ton of stuff on my own).

    These are highly beneficial to designers. They help them learn their tools. They don’t teach design basics like Color Theory, Typography, Layout etc., They supplement those design basics and allow you to apply them to your work.

    2. The second type of tutorial, which I am guilty of reading many a times — is the “COOL PHOTOSHOP TUTZ!111!!111!!!”. These are the tuts you see on and the trillion other tutorial sites out there. You see a cool looking, brightly colored piece of “artwork” (I use the term “artwork” very loosely) and you want to create it yourself.

    These normally use a highly popular image from iStockPhoto (usually of a dancing hoodlum wearing baggy jeans and a hoody sweater).

    Canned effects that all look the same in the end. Sure, the elements might change from image to image but all this does is teach you how to follow a trend. It locks you into a collective of wannabes.

    Ultimately, THANK YOU for doing the first type of tutorial. They help a lot and hopefully one day I get to use the techniques on some commercial work.

  21. Gokhan

    long time I send to you some “how to videos..” Dear Nick but you never reply to me,I don’t understand because you are really great man and your tuts are very understandable and instructional.

    Oh my friend maybe my mail not receive to you that so I will sharing my “how to question under this section,maybe wrong way but I am sorry..

    here is the link;

    please my friend tell me how can I do that?
    I am searching on the net but I can’t find any tutorials links like this animation.

    Please help us Dear Nick..
    if possible can u tell me with a little tutorial?
    maybe We will learn new technics.

    Thank you very much for everything.
    Best Regards

    • Read the comments of the vid you’ve posted, it says:

      “here is the technique behind it. first animate a single block(rotation and visibility). copy the block in a vertical row and manually offset keyframes for the copies. then copy the hole row in vertically for several times. again? offset the keyframes for every single row. this way an animated wall will be done. this techniques is used for the whole animation. actually it’s all about selection and offsetting keyframes.”

      Also, you can check this vid from Beeple (he give the c4d file of this project on his webby):

      Hope that help.

      • Gokhan

        Thanks for reply but I have a little English and I can’t understand what he has said 🙁

        maybe a little tutorial help me…

        Thanks again for reply.

  22. Roberto Carbonell

    I would add the same commets about the plug-ins. Use it, when you need to work fast but take the time to learn how it works and what other ways exist to create the same effect. Don´t be conformist with the presets, create your own.

  23. Hi, Nick. Sorry to say this, but I can see that you’re paying too much attention lately to the issue of how some people are using tutorials. I’m not quite sure, but I feel that this is somehow related to the recent debate sparked by the No More abstract 3D ? video. It’s like a way to tell others: hey, would you please stop copying what I’m doing.
    Here’s an ethical issue that I totally support. It is not right to copy verbatim what others do.
    But I feel that this is a way to waste time. Real artists and CG professionals do not need to be warned about this. And those who do not belong to these categories will continue copying for the rest of their lives. This issue is as old as the history of art: the real artists and their copyists.
    The funny thing is that the copyists will always be there, no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Believe or not, they are are an irreplaceable element _ and imperative_ of human nature

    • I think this idea emerged with the city kit rig, some dude telling harshly that “nick is killing creativity and community with pre-made things”. The same things was going on with the texture pack.

      And it was true in way, as the same goes for video copilot. Don’t blame the tools (or the tool creator in that case), blame the user

      Or don’t blame anyone, people ripping thing will not prevent others to do good shit anyway.

  24. Andelko

    Nick. I’m sure this isn’t the right forum to ask a question but… I purchased your studio light kit pro and am having trouble with external composite tag and image buffers. I want to do a multipass render but the only way I can get an alpha is to turn of the studio rig and render two passes. It doesn’t feel like the best way to do it. Plus I have to fart around with visibility of layers etc. Any advice would be appreciated. I place a collider tag on the floor inside the null and that work for dynamics so maybe its the same principle. Cheers.

  25. Navarro Parker

    ++ THIS!

    THIS is what Andrew Kramer needs to preach to all his Video Copilot copycat groupies.

  26. I can’t agree with you more… Normally when I use tutorials it’s to fill some mysterious gap in knowledge that I’ve lost or don’t have. I am often found scrubbing through tutorials to get to the one portion that explains something about an effect. If I’m actually watching the entire tutorial – I try to break it, in that I go way way further and push the effect using different objects, parameters etc. I guess just experimenting etc. But you’re right about learning in general – there’s nothing like just sitting down and learning how to do something by trying stuff and failing. I seem to remember how to do stuff much better that way.

  27. Agreed, very good articles.

    Can I translate this into Thai and post on my blog?

  28. I really enjoyed this article. This is one of my new favorite sites. I’m a visual communications major at ITT Tech. Right now we are learning 3d modeling. I have a logo idea that I want to model. And I was thinking about combining a bunch of tuts to create it. After I read this lil post I believe it will work. I just think about how to do it in steps from what Ive learned so far. After my associates I believe I’ll specialize in motion graphics for a Bachlors degree. I have a lot to learn. One of favorites is creators rules. I put that pic on my desktop. Creating something everyday is my goal to achieve my career. Its seriously a new way of looking at the world.
    Next year when I know after effects Ill send a demo reel. Right not even close to a critique level.
    Thank you for your site. I now know what I want to do in life.

  29. Robbin Phillips

    I do not know if anyone will read this but to all of the ones who wrote something ahead of me Thank You. I work 2 jobs and about 10-12 years ago. ( so long ago and hard to remember) I was ask to video a dance contest and after a couple more time I got the bug. I have videoed wedding, sports, end of the year video for some schools, dvd for kids sending to college for recruitment ect. I got the adobe products and thought I could learn this in a Summer. This can’t be that hard. Years later still trying. Everytime I think I have gotten a product down I need something else. Yes thats good but that sucks. I have been trying to get more into 3d montage of video and pictures in After Effect and never quite getting there. I was looking at whats new in cinema 4d 13 and for the last 2 weeeks have been watching alot of video. I am excited that with what I need morphing, text, texture on blocks and making objects that will look real makes me want to dig into this software quickly. I remember what I felt like when I first got into After Effect and how overwhelming it was. It looks like cinema 4d could be alot of what I need. Like After Effect it will take along time. I started to get into this at an old age and getting older. Any advice would be appreicated. I don’t mind giving out my email