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When Blind Faith Beats Logic: An Historical Tale

Creativity is a very risky business. When you believe it essential to break boundaries and create something completely original or even just novel, there are always those who will fight change with traditional excuses and negativity.

The enormous potential of holistic strategies is often lost on formal, organizations that can’t act on transformative thinking and the kind of open-minded risk and experimentation that is essential for 21st Century initiatives. It just can’t happen with yesterday’s thinking, yesterday’s attitudes and yesterday’s rules.

When Blind Faith Beats Logic: Tales of Risk, Reward and Failure.

Creativity is a very risky business. When you believe it's essential to break boundaries and create something completely original or even just novel, there are always those who will fight change with traditional excuses and negativity.  “We’ve never done that before”, “It’s not in our mandate”, “It will be a waste of time and resources”, “There’s no proof it will work”, “That’s crazy!” etc.

Breakthrough ideas have never been more important than they are now in education and training because current practices are simply inadequate to the task of preparing for the future. You can expect a lot of resistance to change – on many levels up and down the academic hierarchy – including from your cohorts.

I was faced with this kind of challenge in 1980 when I wanted to start a graduate program in computer animation for artists at Sheridan College - now Sheridan Institute of Technology and Higher Learning.  I think the story is a useful illustration of the challenge of transformative change. It demands out-of-the-box thinking and considerable persuasion.

In 1979, I had been given the opportunity by Sheridan to take some of my time after I had been working in creative behavior research, to think about future opportunities for the School of Visual Arts.  As part of that initiative I went to the 6th SIGGRAPH in Chicago.  At that time I don’t think there were many artists attending the event and I think Aaron Marcus was the first to organize a course in design for the Seattle SIGGRAPH in 1980. Anyway, I came away completely convinced that computer animation could have a profound effect on the way artists interact with technology.  Personal computers were very much in their infancy and high-end technology was prohibitively expensive. There was virtually no commercially available graphic and animation software except for specialized areas such as flight simulation.

Anyway, I went to the senior administration of the College with the idea that we should start Canada’s first graduate programs in computer graphics and animation for artists.  The Vice Presidents at the time peppered me with the standard questions that are typical of new program initiatives. 

What is the established field of expertise? 

Answer “Well there isn’t one – the field doesn’t really exist yet”

What other arts institutions are teaching computer animation for artists?

Answer: “None as far as I know – there are a couple of programs for computer scientists and there is ongoing research and development in the US and some breakthroughs at the National Film Board in Canada”.

(Note, those interested in early research should check out the pioneering film Hunger/La Faim by Marcelli Wein and Lester Burtnyk.  In 1974 it was the first computer animated short film and first to be nominated for an Academy Award as best short. That’s 15 years before Pixar’s Tin Toy was nominated and won in 1989!!)

Where will you get faculty to teach this subject?

Answer: I have no idea – there are no professionals out there with industry experience because there is no industry yet”

How will you convince students to take a program in a nonexistent field with no clear job opportunities?

Answer: “Well they’ll have to create the opportunities. We need to find inspired, talented, creative and adventurous candidates inspired and willing to take the risk”

And so on.

The idea met NONE of the criteria normally used to develop or approve a new program. Plus, post–diploma programs had never been offered in the Ontario College system and I believed that it would take at skilled visual artists, designers or animators with at least a three-year diploma or undergrad degree to meet the challenge of such a new field (and I didn’t’ want to teach undergrads).

Finally I said:  “Well, this is a leap of faith, if I am right, we’ll be way ahead of the game. If I am wrong you will have wasted a lot of money. But let me fly you to a couple of places where I think the future is going to unfold”.  And so I took them to the New York Institute of Technology and Ohio State University, both pioneers at that time of seminal work in early computer animation software and experimentation. You might be interested to research these two organizations – you’ll uncover some interesting people who would later set important standards in the industry.

It was those visits that convinced the VP’s (who were a special breed of academic entrepreneurs in their attitudes to risk) to take the project to the most senior levels of the system and get permission to start a new kind of post-diploma program in an unproven domain of practice.

Of course it took many years to mature the program.  I had incoming fall students trained in the summer on specific systems and they became students and teachers at the same time – then later full time instructors and mentors. I hired a 19-year old programmer, Dave Springer, to write animation software. He left in ’84 after a couple of years to become one of the founders of Alias and a major contributor to their Power Animator software development.

We struggled, we experimented, we ran a 24-hour open lab, and we entered into all kinds of novel relationships with government to acquire high-end equipment, with the business sector to use emerging animation software, with academic partners such as NYIT where we could send grads for further training.  We took on novel projects, experimented with all kinds of computer systems and software working with both high end as well as a range of consumer technologies (anyone remember the Apple 2 series and the Commodore PET?).

Frankly, during the whole of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, I think the rest of the school thought we were out of our minds even though we were able to convince some of the classically trained animation graduates to join our cause.  The classical animation faculty (a brilliant group in their own right) weren’t very interested. At the same time and in the lab/studio, we were pioneering computer graphics for all kinds of presentation systems and for the precursors of interactive applications that were later to evolve into web design.  Anyone remember the Dicomed, Genigraphics. Images 2, Vertigo Software. the MiniVax, PDP 11/30’s running Teledon, the HP 3000 and 8 inch floppy discs? Every workstation cost at least $100,000 and we needed five or six at a time so that students could have 24-hour access and enough time to develop solid skill sets. We experimented with digital video and digital photography – anything we could get our hands on and especially those technologies used by commercial producers.

It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that the field matured enough for the graduates to find their rightful place in the industry.  Almost 1/3rd of ILM animators were Sheridan grads in the early days working on Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, and many other film since. Some are still there.

For some reason, the grads of 1984 and the late 80’s have been particularly influential, Glen McQueen became animation supervisor at PIXAR until his unfortunate death from cancer at the age of 42  (yes, Lighting McQueen is actually named after him), Rex Grignon became head of character animation at Dreamworks, Raman Hui co-directed Shrek 3, Geoff Campbell is senior modeler at ILM, Eric Armstrong won the Academy Award for the Chubb Chubbs. The list goes on and combined with the grads of Classical Animation, Sheridan alumni have won or been nominated for eight Academy Awards.

The whole initiative was build on a vision that took close to 15 years to mature and enourmous trial and error.

Creativity is always about thinking out of the box, taking risks, overcoming failures, using imagination, intuition, and about sustained effort and persistence in the face of skepticism and negativity.   The credit for the alumni’s achievements goes to each one of them for their creativity, their passion and persistent life-long learning that goes with the professional territory and to the faculty for their enthusiasm and dedication over the past three decades.  As educators we must provide the best physical and psychological environment, the inspiration, and the resources. Then stand back!!

But it doesn’t always work.  In the late 1990s, I developed with a colleague, the vision of a truly convergent and interdisciplinary digital convergence facility at Sheridan that was eventually built at a cost of $32 million. It combined the training and resources of computer animation, high definition and 35mm film production, high-end audio production, web design, a digital journalism studio, R and D facilities etc.  It’s known as SCAET - The Sheridan Centre for Animation and Emerging Technologies (later dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002).

Fine, but when I proposed a new high-end program in “interdisciplinary convergence” that would synergistically combine these resources I hit a brick wall.  In the intervening years, new VPs and complex academic program evaluation systems were in place that held a rigid view of program development and there was no way the College would introduce such an unproven idea.  I retired from the College in 2000 a year after SCAET was built although I continued to work part-time there in a research capacity for a further couple of years.

Now I think SCAET is been successful on many levels and the faculty and students have achieved an excellent level of quality in their respective disciplines.

It has also spawned excellent research and development. But for me, the opportunity to break truly new ground was hampered by the silo effect of institutional hierarchies, by an architectural design that did nothing to enable collaboration, as well as the lack interdisciplinary and collaborative programming. 

The enormous potential of holistic strategies is often lost on formal, organizations that can’t act on transformative thinking and the kind of open-minded risk and experimentation that is essential for 21st Century initiatives. It just can’t happen with yesterday’s thinking, yesterday’s attitudes and yesterday’s rules.

So, that’s the nature of creative effort. You win some, you lose some, you learn and you move on.

And so next time I write about a new venture – to reinvent animation training for the 21st Century.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the locus of the initiative will be in China although the focus will be truly global.

Those interested in the early pioneers of art and design in computer graphics should check out the contributions of Chuck Csuri, EdEmswiller, Bill Reaves, Joan Truckenbrod, David Em, Yoichiro Kowagichi, Donna Cox, Copper Gilloth and Aaron Marcus and there are many others but that’s another (his)story.

Until next time…….

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