How do we train students for a world that doesn’t exist?

31 Jan 2017

Conánn FitzPatrick, lecturer at Ulster University. Image: Conánn FitzPatrick/Twitter

Emily McDaid sat down with Conánn FitzPatrick, a lecturer in computer animation at Ulster University, to discuss his groundbreaking new degree and master’s programmes at the Belfast School of Art.

“The potential that exists in Northern Ireland’s creative industries is dependent on local talent and skill set. I see my job as developing talent. We are poised for growth here and things are good. But we cannot attract major FDI [foreign direct investment] in creative industries like animation, film and others if we don’t feed the local talent base,” said to Conánn FitzPatrick.

“When we started, our industry was basically nothing. Now we have students winning Emmys for VFX [in Game of Thrones (GoT)] while they’re still in degree programmes. They’re coming back to finish their degrees and then they’re ready to go straight into industry.”

How many students graduate your computer animation course yearly?

We have around 130 alumni, graduating 35 annually. These students are trained in animation using Maya or Cinema 4D, for example. We don’t focus on 2D animation – we need to be looking further ahead to 3D, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and interactive design.

Can you give an example of an academic project?

One of our projects is an immersive, explorable narrative. The audience is taken through a range of experiences not unlike those in a traditional film or game, but their movement through that narrative is quite unlike any experience they will have previously encountered. VR and AR open a wide range of opportunities for animation to explore, such as documentary practice or information arts.

We’re still trying to find the best way forward for it, but that is what makes what we do so enjoyable.

What impact has Game of Thrones had on the creative industries?

It was a fluke, but it has been incredible. NI Screen was instrumental in getting GoT here, however, I can’t imagine any of those involved in the initial conversations could have imagined the success of GoT, or the regional impact. Regarding the growth in the talent pool, it’s maybe the best thing that’s ever happened here.

For sustainable impact, we need to replace it with whatever’s coming after GoT. The next project will know that there’s a developed skill base here. Not just animation, but skills in textiles, costume, set design, lighting etc. Sustainable employment comes with a higher level of skills.

Is NI ahead of the curve in design?

No. We have a long way to go. We tend to be resistant to change in NI. We need to transform this mindset. That’s why I’m using a design-centred workshop approach in my degree course – it’s a completely new way of teaching and learning. We need to get people working in technology and design to understand each other. While this happens naturally in some areas, such as animation or interaction design, the broader Northern Irish economy is suffering a catastrophic design deficit.

Are we at a tipping point with VR?

We’re somewhere between VR sets being in every home and VR sets being used as ashtrays. Consumption is social. If you put on a VR headset to watch a show, you’re cutting yourself off from everything in the room, including the person you’re sitting with. I’m cynical about this as an art form that can engage for longer than a few minutes.

But VR can change certain arenas, like house buying.

Sure, it’s far better to walk around the rooms of a house virtually rather than looking at eight pictures of it. VR also has great applications in tourism. I personally think AR is more promising because you can essentially see through it, so you’re not closed off from the outside world.

Making the experience immersive for many, instead of immersive for one – that’s the goal.

What about Snap Spectacles?

Every time we interact, we have a social contract. Being able to secretly film someone breaks that contract. The first time someone uses Snap Spectacles in a toilet, there’s going to be a problem. We’ll see where it goes. But if any company can do it, Snap is the best positioned.

Do you describe your students as millennials?

Yes, they’re aged from 19-40, but mostly in the range of 19-22. They have a completely different way of consuming media than how you and I grew up. They don’t watch TV or use Facebook. They like media that goes away. They tend not to exist in any pools that are being polled, so it’s no surprise that our pollsters are getting things wrong.

What’s different about your approach?

I worked with Patricia Flanagan to bring concepts to NI that were already being used in southern California, an immersive way of going about group design. Some of my students don’t know how lucky they are. Some of them have never seen anything different, but the ones who have know how good it is.

Design should drive industry and, if done right, design has a huge impact on the economy. Universities should always be a safe place for students to take risks and invent the future that we will all profit from.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland