If one wonders why Louisiana’s economic development department is gung-ho on developing digital industries, go to the movies. Sit and watch the full credits. Pay attention to the list of 2-d artists, visual effects artists, animators, sound engineers, character designers, editors, musicians, music editors, engineering system administrators, and software engineers. There were 170 visual effects artists alone hired on Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda; 615 on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; and a whopping 1200 on Avatar.
Digital media technology is fundamental not only to filmmaking, music recording, and gaming (a $10 billion a year industry), but also to marketing, architecture, engineering, shipping, industrial design, science, medicine, and defense.
What jazz musicians were to transforming music in the 20th century, visual artists and designers will be to transforming every aspect of life and business in the 21st century. And as with jazz, Louisiana’s creative young students have a primary training resource in the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Long before mastering the latest software programs such as Maya, Z-brush, XSI, Houdini, or Mud-box, students must master the one-frame skills of drawing, painting, color theory, line, composition, perspective, foreshortening, figure drawing, and light. Before industrial designers can build the latest product, car or space shuttle, they must master properties of clay, form, and modeling. Before music editors can digitally assemble a movie’s soundtrack, they must master scales and music theory. Before you can tell a story in 0’s and 1’s, you have to be able to tell a story.
NOCCA provides students with the opportunity to begin intensive training at the age of 14 or 15 so that 10,000 hours later they are in a position to use their well-honed skills and understanding, not only to succeed, but to innovate in their fields. This has been the history of NOCCA since its founding in 1973. The Center’s many jazz students – including Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis; Terence Blanchard; Harry Connick Jr.; Donald Harrison; Kent and Marlon Jordan; Nicholas Payton; Troy Andrews; Sullivan Fortner; and Jonathan Batiste – have impacted the course of jazz at an early age.
“You cannot throw someone into a symphony and expect them to play just because they know chopsticks,” says Brandon Oldenburg, VP Creative at Shreveport’s Moonbot Studios, an animation and visual effects studio founded by Oldenburg, producer Lampton Enochs, and award winning author, illustrator, animator, and filmmaker William Joyce. “Animation and digital media go beyond the bells and whistles a computer can give you. Audiences can tell immediately if something is designed poorly or not. Without mastering the fundamentals you will run into a wall, because you cannot just push a button and have something look pretty.”
So what are digital media companies looking for? “As a recruiter,” states Oldenburg, “I’m looking for deeper thought, which comes from a broad academic background, and the ability to tap into an emotional channel. Working with a master allows a student to become proficient much quicker because you are standing on the shoulders of all the knowledge that has come before.”
“The more you can observe, the more you can imagine,” NOCCA computing arts teacher Terry DeRoche tells students. At this year’s SIGGRAPH convention, DeRoche had the opportunity to speak with artists from Blizzard, one of the leading game designers in the world (World of Warcraft, Diablo). He asked them what skill sets they were they most looking for. The answer: artists who can draw a single still image such as a room, a landscape, a figure. Before rigging and rendering, everything must be drawn first.
“I look at education, work experience, and lateral problem solving skills when considering candidates,” says Hael Kobayashi, a senior executive, producer and educator in film and digital media technology for leading companies such as Animal Logic, Industrial Light + Magic and PDI/DreamWorks Animation. “By that I mean the ability to look over a wide breadth of problems and come up with a solution or create a new process. In this industry there is a need for constant cross-training beyond the initial training. Working in digital media is non-linear, with multiple layers and the need for participants to have a full understanding of how all the parts work together in order to do their job and do a better job.”
The elements of learning at NOCCA — its Creative DNA — are uniquely suited to developing 21st century skills required in highly multi-disciplinary fields such as digital media. These include not just technical grounding, but development of the individual artistic voice, ensemble work, and critique. At a recent workshop lead by Tectonic Theatre Project’s Andy Parris, Drama students created well over 100 one-minute scenes. After each, they asked, “what did we like?”, “what was confusing?”, “what did we not like?”, “what if we tried this instead?” By the end of the week, students’ analytical and observational skills were at the forefront of all of their thinking.
“You cannot nurture creativity in an environment where students feel insecure about failure,” further explains Drama faculty Silas Cooper. “What is special about NOCCA is that we foster a climate that encourages failure and exploration which is the only way to have big breakthroughs as an artist. You make only safe choices in an environment that requires only success. Criticism is the opportunity to understand and appraise in order to make something better.”
This, Oldenburg believes, is a critical component to successfully developing this industry. “When you start your training at a young age, you are still fearless. If you can remove the fear gene, you are always able to adapt and are hungry for knowledge your whole life – which is essential in this business given how quickly and constantly the technology evolves.”
Learning any art is learning to communicate, to tell a story, and storytelling is a core part of the human condition, not to mention many economic engines. “I can teach a student how to set a mike or use Pro Tools relatively quickly,” says Paul Werner, Chair Media Arts at NOCCA. “To teach a student how to edit, how to create emotion, how to organize what they are trying to say, that takes a long time.”
At NOCCA students can get ahead of the curve. “Twenty-first century literacy is visual,” says Kobayashi. “We have come full circle.”