Sunday, March 2, 2014

Are universities failing the UK's visual effects industry?

Pat Joseph, co-founder and chief creative officer of The Mill, certainly thinks so. In this post at the Televisual blog,  Joseph argues that higher education in the UK is not responding to the needs of the visual effects industry, and is not training students of the digital arts to a sufficiently high calibre. Critics of UK government policy argue that tax breaks for the creative industries create unfair competition (see thursday's post about the sad end of Rythm and Hues). But could it be that, despite the tax breaks, the university sector is the achilles heel of visual effects work in the UK?

Joseph argues that schools and universities in this country are simply not doing enough. He says that "there is still a general lack of awareness about the VFX industry from a careers perspective. The explosion of content requiring sophisticated VFX needs has to be equally matched with suitably talented artists and it continues to be a challenge finding new talent to this high level."

Joseph then goes on to say: "My concern is that the British education system still isn't really laying out visual effects as a career option and so in turn, students aren't graduating with the right skills. Demand continues to grow, but universities that do train to industry standard, such as Bournemouth University, are struggling to meet it."

Pat Joseph isn't just complaining though; he also recognises the need for industry to do its part. As he puts it: "We need to continue to work closely with schools and universities in order to attract the best candidates and engage with them from a young age. So here at The Mill we really believe in backing and nurturing our talent as we want them to do the best work of their careers with us."

Part of the problem, of course, is that visual effects is still a young industry, and most of the people who are very good at it tend to be out there doing it, rather than teaching it at university. In addition, the industry is something of a moving target; the technology changes all the time, and keeping up with the latest commercial trends isn't always easy, especially when university courses have to be both internally and externally validated in lengthy and rather bureaucratic processes.

Buckinghamshire New University
In September 2012 I joined Buckinghamshire New University in High Wycombe, tempted by the chance to launch a new animation and visual effects course. I had just set up my online animation school, Animation Apprentice, in the summer of 2012, and I wanted to see if I could combine online learning techniques (distance learning) with traditional classroom teaching to create a hybrid system - blended learning, that would combine the best of the two.

Universities are slow-moving beasts, and making significant changes to how things are done can feel like trying to steer an ocean liner with a paddle. I have a lot of sympathy with Pat Joseph's complaint. Universities in the UK do not, with a few honourable exceptions, do enough to train graduates to the right level - witness the huge numbers of graduates from French animation schools at studios like Frame Store, who tend to hire from Les Gobbelins and Supinfocom in preference to home grown talent.

Universities in the UK need to do better, and try harder, to produce graduates with the right level of skills. After all, Soho visual effects houses compete in a global industry that increasingly sources its employees from all over the world. They will find the best talent from wherever it can be sourced.


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