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Telling bigger and better stories in digital form

  • There is a growing need for fresh media graduates who are abreast of the latest trends and armed with an updated arsenal of technological tools
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 9:20am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 11:48am

Whether it is in film, animation, television or online media, one thing is for certain: digital is the centre of today’s storytelling.

As audience demands and expectations become more sophisticated, the media’s digital landscape has had to undergo massive changes, or even overhauls, in a short time. “As technology evolves, we see the demand from audiences increase,” explains Bryan Bentley, professor of animation and visual effects at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Hong Kong. “Productions need to be more realistic, bigger and better, and a competing power increases with the demand for that level of entertainment that people expect across all digital media – movies, video games, photography, etc.”

“Developments in digital animation, together with increased joint ventures between Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan, have opened up immense production opportunities,as well as the demand for talent,” says Derek Wan, programme director and senior lecturer of the Academy of Film at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU).

“These days, the industry and students demand training not just in the technical aspects of media production. Our programme also nurtures creative professionals with a liberal arts background so that the work they produce has more depth and insight into humanity while being able to popularly entertain.”

In 2014, HKBU rolled out a full-time, three-year master of fine arts in film, TV and digital programme, covering 19 subjects. The objective was to enrich media workers and university graduates by systematically equipping them with extensive experience in film, television and digital media, preparing them for leading roles within the media industry in the Greater China region.

In the course’s first year, students get a broad education in film, TV and digital media, and then in the second year, get to choose from a wide range of elective courses that will steer them towards professional training, such as scriptwriting, film or TV production and digital media. This is also the time when students receive a lot of artistic nurturing. In the last year, they will embark on dedicated courses that support their thesis project.

“In the third year, having received fundamental training in storytelling and digital media production, students can choose to complete a five- to eight-minute animation film for their thesis project under the supervision of a professional,” Wan says.

The idea is that graduates will come out as media professionals with an artistic sense and a sense of social responsibility as well as an international vision.

“I wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking and writing,” says Andrew Tse, a student of the MFA programme. “The programme has definitely helped me better understand the technical, but more importantly, the storytelling aspect involved.

Being able to watch and analyse world cinema critically has been instrumental to my growth, both as a filmmaker and as a person.” Baptist University is not alone in feeling the pressure of keeping up with the evolution of digital media. The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) also offers a two-year master of fine arts degree in cinema production for students who already have some screen production experience but would like to enhance their knowledge and skill sets.

The programme is also something of a reaction to the various industry trends. “All aspects of screen production are totally digital now,” explains Geoffrey Stitt, dean of the HKAPA School of Film and Television. “The only remaining parts are the actual human performances in front of and behind the camera.

The actual image and sound are analogue before they are converted through the lens and microphone to digital data, and they remain in the digital domain until the image and sound are replayed to an audience. Everything between the original capture and final display is in digital form and requires highly skilled creative digital adjustment,” Stitt says.

So, it is for these reasons that the programme is based entirely on using digital technologies for production and post-production, as well as for writing, seeking locations, preparing budgets, drawing storyboards, set and costume design, communication between students and with teachers, and finally distributing and promoting the finished screen work.

Because of this, the quality of the film school now relies very much on collaborating with industry and professional practitioners to provide, firstly, a safe environment for students to explore, and secondly, an environment that mirrors real-world practices and procedures.

The MFA programme, which can be undertaken full-time or in part-time mode, is therefore fully affiliated with CILECT, the International Association of Film and Television Schools. HKAPA is rated highly in the CILECT Asia-Pacific region.

While the BFA programme at the HKAPA attracts largely Hong Kong applicants, the majority of MFA students come from mainland China and are interested in working in its film production industry upon graduation, a similar situation to the one Baptist University is experiencing.

According to Stitt, the programme is the right place for these students, and based on past experience, the MFA programme has extremely high employment rates for graduates, who tend to find employment in Hong Kong and the mainland. “I decided to go back to study the master of fine arts programme,” says Idris Ho Man-shan, who is in year two and has worked in the film industry for 10 years. “I wanted a change so I decided to step outside my comfort zone. I wanted something new and to experience some new challenges ... and the school has provided a continuing learning experience for me.”

Another institution at the forefront of educating film students through the technology boom is SCAD. Well-known for its bachelor of fine arts in animation programme, the school is proud of the skills it can impart to students.

“2D, 3D, stop-motion, digital modelling, rigging, lighting, look development, animation ... Students at SCAD are able to master it all,” says Bentley. Animators who graduate from the programme are able to explore new riveting ways to create fantastical realms and tell stories that resonate not just across generations, but also across cultures and platforms in a wide-ranging discipline encompassing film, television, interactive media and video games.

Underscoring this is the fact that the school understands that digital media today is one of the many mediums in which a producer can tell a story.

“Similarly to how an art teacher teaches students composition using paint, I do the same things using 1s, 0s and pixels to educate students on how to tell their story,” Bentley explains. “As professors at SCAD, we work to ensure students have mastered the fundamental concepts of digital media that are then adaptable in any digital realm.”

The aim of the four-year degree is ultimately to help students become a story and concept artist, a character technical director, a 3-D animator and more. Bentley stresses that today’s animators are storytellers who are driving an entire industry by employing their unique artistic prowess in film, television and online media.

“I chose to study the animation programme at SCAD because it is one of the most recognised educational institutions in the creative industry providing a wide range of art and design degree programmes and professional training,” says Rico Lee, a student on the BFA animation programme, and who one day wants to become a visual designer and storyteller.

Lee says that his experience on the programme had been both invigorating and humbling. On the one hand, the professors come with a vault of industry experience and specialise in different areas, and are thus able to impart a great deal of knowledge and inspire students; on the other hand, his classmates come from all over the world, bringing with them talent, insights into different cultures and, in some cases, great industry experience, all of which motivates Lee to work harder.

Indeed, SCAD’s educational approach reflects the cross-pollinating structure of today’s media industry, enhanced by advanced professional-level technology, equipment and learning resources.

So it comes as little surprise that the institution also recently rolled out a brand new, cutting-edge programme focusing on educating user experience (UX) designers.

“Among today’s most in-demand professionals, UX designers dream up revolutionary design products, solutions and services – both digital and physical – that reinvent and reinvigorate how companies connect with customers and stay competitive,” says Derek Black, associate dean of academic services and professor of graphic design and typography on the User Experience Design programme at SCAD.

The four-year programme, developed in conjunction with Google, offers a curriculum that covers four pillars: human behaviour, technical proficiency, aesthetics and collaboration. The course was curated to provide students with the skills to present user-experience solutions in a creative, analytical and technical manner.

“With the emergence of new technologies, user experience solutions require analytical human behaviour skills, visual aesthetic understanding and computer interaction,” says Black. “With this in mind, the school has answered the need to develop a programme that provides students with all this expertise.”

According to Black, user experience design is a highly employable field and is one of the most in-demand professions globally.