Search form

Four Keys to Creative Transformation: The Results of a Prototype Test in China

Creative transformation means doing it differently! This post describes a two year experiment in designing and implementing a training school based on four key principles that enhance the learning process. Based on core competencies, it used a range of novel methods to motivate and develop professionally related skills in an accelerated system of feedback loops and rapid iteration.

Four Keys to Creative Transformation: Results of a Prototype

September brings a new semester start to all those students studying in formal institutions around the world.   It’s often an enormous emotional time and a major financial investment in the future.

The optimism and inspiration that comes with a fresh start ought to sustain us during the whole learning process and indeed throughout our working life and beyond.  As I travel around the world, I experience all kinds of academic and training environments.  Throughout China for example the month of September sees all first-year university and college students undertake their compulsory military training.  At least four weeks of marching, drilling and exercises designed to enhance their sense of social responsibility and teamwork.

I’ve spent time over the years on several Chinese campuses during this activity  – last year at one where around 3,000 students were trained by members of the military  - parading on the athletic field in separate male and female groups from early morning until late afternoon.  Hardly a practice that is likely to find its way into North American or European media schools.

However, China’s educational environment is slowly evolving, but the past practices of hierarchical, instructor-driven rote learning and passive classroom behavior are difficult to change.  I have seen precious few creative classrooms or studios environments round the country where individuality and personal expression are an everyday part of the physical and psychological space.  Large classes are often the norm and individual help and encouragement hard to come by.  On one rather typical campus, all the students must live in segregated dorms and individual expression emerges slowly except in a few cases of personal clothing and style.  On the other hand I see great promise in China because of their strong artistic skills, their enthusiasm and their willingness to embrace a larger sphere of expression as they open up to global influences. But more of the China experience perhaps in a later post. 

While this is not a globally typical situation, it was the impetus to design and implement an alternative and improved structure for training that could be tested and verified in a Chinese context.  Starting with a set of key core competencies, I joined with a US investor and local Western-managed Beijing animation production company in 2007 to create a training center that would put these ideas into practice.  The program, curricula and environmental design was based on four central principles:

1)   enhanced learning through rapid iteration,

2)  ubiquitous critique and constructive feedback,

3)   critical and creative thinking and

4)   professional mentorship

Students were selected on the basis of their performance in a one-week “boot camp” process during which their visual perception, skills, creativity, teamwork and attitudes were assessed through a series of assigned activities. Faculty and graduate students were recruited from Western sources. Some of the grads were bilingual which was a great help in providing support for the students. 

The one-year program included a six-month training program plus a six-month industry internship. Initially the first stream was oriented towards character performance and the majority of students had no animation training or related application software experience – so they started essentially from square one.  Class sizes were limited to around 15 students to ensure individual attention and to encourage small group participation and peer-to-peer mentorship.

1)     Rapid iteration: over 80% of the instructional and lab time per week was devoted to learning and practicing animation skills in a studio environment. The remaining time was set aside for drawing in various forms and for an English language class to aid in understanding and researching related topics.  Interpreters were trained to provide accurate translation of core concepts and all instruction.

 2)    Constant critique and feedback was available through daily instructor critiques, technologist supervision in lab hours, peer-to  peer assistance and occasional but critically important professional mentoring.

 3)   Critical and creative thinking was encouraged through participation and daily critiques. In addition, students were expected to display and share their personal creative work whenever possible.  As each new class was added at three monthly intervals there was ample opportunity for students to see and learn from those just ahead of them in the learning cycle -pull being seen as more important than push.

4)    During the 24 weeks of instructional time, the students were exposed to the work and experience of inspirational visitors and lecturers from major animation production companies many of whom are Academy Award winners.   This included visits from very senior staff of Industrial Light and Magic, Sony Animation, Electronic Arts, Rhythm and Hues, Side Effects. fxPhD, and Autodesk Media and Entertainment as well as some short term instructors from other Western countries. Several of the guests were speakers at local and international events that the students also attended.

While the training was narrowed to specialize in the basics of character performance (character models were provided for the most part) the result demonstrated that streamlined learning under the right conditions can bring students to a good competency standard in a short time, even without prior software skills.

Initial results were described at a Panel Session I organized on core competencies titled “Bridging the Gap between Education and Professional Production” and held at the first SIGGRAPH ASIA in Singapore in December 2008.

A chronological video show reel of all the assignments of just one of the first students of IDD can be viewed on my web site.  Go to, then CURRENT PROJECTS and link to Institute for Digital Design: Beijing. Follow the link “more about IDD plus student work” at the bottom of this page to the link marked “Student Work” and you’ll find the video there. Other student’s work can be found on YouTube by entering “IDD” as a search term. The program was modelled in many ways on a professional studio framework.

After two years, the school was “bequeathed” to a group of its employees who have taken the concept and further enlarged and extended it under local management.

Next Time : The challenge of creative problem solving.