Transforming Animation Education for the Conceptual Age
I am delighted to be joining AWN and very grateful to Ron and Dan and for giving me the opportunity to express my opinions and observations about animation education and training. I anticipate this blog will spark some very lively debate. My desire is to incite a creative transformation, perhaps even a revolution, in the way we think about teaching and learning, personally and professionally.
I have been involved in computer animation since its early days (1981 to be exact) as a founder, designer, supervisor, teacher and consultant to numerous public and private institutions in North America, Europe and for the past ten years in The Far East. When it comes to education and training, I’ve shared with and learned from the best, witnessed and advised the average and struggled with the worst.
My interests and passion is for improving the practice of personal and collaborative creativity, how we acquire knowledge and practical skills and how we evolve through our exposure to teachers, trainers and mentors, as well as through the practice and art of animation.
In addition, because there is so much temptation, I’ll touch from time to time on a variety of subjects tangential to animation but that are related because they illustrate the value of exposure to creative people, processes and environments that stimulate our imagination and inspire us to develop our selves and our peers.
Sad to say, I firmly believe that globally, the majority of today’s educational institutions are past their “best before” dates, having failed to adjust to the characteristics of today’s “digital natives” and industry’s best practices. They are incapable of modifying their methods to facilitate truly meaningful and comprehensive learning and expertise that will adequately prepare today’s graduates for tomorrow’s professional demands in an unpredictable future.
For the most part, too many institutions are using Industrial Age methods to instruct, inform and prepare digitally immersed Information Age students for the emerging Conceptual Age. Harsh criticism I know. Even many of the first-rate schools fail to change and adjust themselves to individual learning styles, personal talents and the ways our brains are becoming rewired as a result of exposure to and use of digital technologies.
In addition, there are far too many private institutions around the world that take money from young people who have little talent or knowledge of the industry (or understanding of the animator’s art, science and technology) with the assurance of a career in one of the major studios. Mastering the mechanics of Maya (or 3dS Max, Softimage or any software application) is not going to turn you into an animator any more than learning musical notation will make you a musician or standing in a garage will make you a car.
My argument is not with excellent public and private training institutions. These are well known to the recruiters in the field, although graduation from them is no guarantee of success either. My argument is with obsolete and inadequate training that fails to graduate students with the core competencies they need to be successful. Every institution or training centre should be constantly evolving its programs, curricula and methods of instruction to better prepare students for the future. Sadly many can’t because of traditional academic structures, administrative rules and regulations, systems of performance measurement, institutional constraints, poor teaching, outmoded practices and ill informed leadership.
Too many of today’s formal teaching methods are out-of-date and largely devoid of rapid iterative practice, immediate feedback and critique, reflective practices and do not correspond to the natural ways we gain knowledge and proficiency. Ask the students. Many will tell you that they learn more from their peers than from their teachers. Mentoring it turns out is often more critical to learning than routine and lackluster instruction. There are many excellent teachers out there and they should be left alone to do what they do best - to inspire their students through their example, their enthusiasm, passion, knowledge, skill and professionalism. As for the poor ones, well even extensive industry experience does not necessarily ensure good teaching practice - good teaching and mentorship is as much an art as any craft.
Personal, professional and institutional evolution demands vision, imagination, creativity and a leap of faith to produce truly meaningful and inspired change. Education and training is no exception. Evolution means taking a chance, experimenting, incorporating and rewarding failure, and above all using reflective practices to learn, change, evolve and to move forward.
I am adamant in supporting the importance of a thorough foundation in the fundamental principles and cores skills of animation, including story, character design, anatomy, motion dynamics, performance and the critical role of reference, observation, analysis, problem solving, collaboration, and teamwork. Nothing is more important. As Ken Robinson points out in his TED talks - creativity is originality that has value. More about that in a forthcoming post.
Also, I firmly believe that there is an urgent need for a universal set of well-defined core competences that should form the foundation of every professionally oriented program of study. Not to dictate style, content or creative expression but rather to make it possible for students to demonstrate their skills, talents, and professional attitudes and to make the recruitment process more open and viable. Another topic for exploration later.
We just don’t’ know what the world will be like five years from now. Today’s grads from three and four-year university programs could not have easily forecast when they started their studies, the impact of social networking on learning and working life, digital distraction, globally distributed production, migration across the Uncanny Valley or today’s preoccupation with stereoscopy.
So, it’s time for serious debate. Time to challenge the stats quo. Time to challenge our selves to find a better way. To ask “what if?” and “why not?” Time to stand outside “the system” and find ways to reinvent education and training through inspirational practices, creative exploration and engaging mentorship.
I'm looking forward to your feedback and the opportunity to explore these issues in a spirit of open debate and with an eye to inventing the future rather than continuing the past.