I visited the new Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Centre campus in Adelaide last week and can report that their program is very forward thinking and innovative.
I met with faculty members who were both from computer science, animation, writing and editing backgrounds – all had extensive industry experience in computer games, film or other areas of entertainment. They are adamant that CM are not running a games program â€“ they consider what they are doing to be much wider than that – branching out to a range of other experiences that are inherently interactive. ETC has wider aims than the games industry alone and can equally apply to filmmaking, education, animation, architectural, museum and object design.
The ETC start-up in Adelaide has 13 US students, five lecturers and four support lecturers have been uprooted from the USA and relocated down under. SA is the first â€˜outreachâ€™ location for ETC who has plans to set up future operations in Mumbai, Singapore and Seoul. In mid June they will recruit their first Australian students to their two week “Building Virtual Worlds” intensive collaborative workshop which they have been advertising as an exciting opportunity for professional development, working along side ETC graduate students and your fellow professionals for 14 days. And it’s FREE!
What’s interesting about the genesis of this program is that its structure was conceived by an academic called Randy Pausch who, after returning from a sabbatical spent at EA games, wrote a paper which reported that everything students were being taught at university courses were irrelevant to the digital production industry. He made some recommendations for cross disciplinary, collaborative, improvisational and highly flexible programs and ETC is, in part, an embodiment of this.
The course is structured around a series of two week “cycles” where students complete a production exercise around design of virtual worlds. Students are recruited from a range of fields including computer science, art and humanities, animation, writing, sound, music composition and producing. The course is all about teamwork and from cycle to cycle teams change and students get a chance to work as part of different groups.
I sat in on a student progress presentation and saw some elementary visual implementations of projects. Each was programmed in a games engine and featured two or three characters in a world with a series of rules. One featured a vacuum cleaner and a duster. The aim of the duster was to not only escape from the vacuum cleaner but to outsmart it and force it to get tangled in its electric lead. Another used characters from Norman Lindsay’s the Magic Pudding and was set on a huge map of Australia. The rules were rather elaborate but involved utilizing the pudding for good in order to save the nation from being flooded by rising seas. The third project was set in a circus ring and featured a demonic child who chased a clown and tried to eat him. You got to control the clown who tried to outwit the child. While what we saw was very crude visually, and too elaborate from an interactive standpoint, what came across was the strength of the teamwork and the genesis of the creative process.
A little bit of history we gathered about the ETC program: it was set up at Carnegie Mellon as a very autonomous unit who, while able to use the University brand, exist independently of its funding or curriculum bureaucracy. This gives them a great deal of freedom outside the existing specialist disciplines â€“ though they have now grown to over 50 students in Pittsburgh though started as a small unit of only 15 students.
Students in the program complete major projects later in the course and they often partner with outside organizations on these or else students go on attachment to companies in the industry. Past projects have included museum exhibitions with interactive visuals and sound, games and animatronics robots.
What I found most interesting about the program was the intensity of the structure, the collaborative nature of the work and the focus on a multidisciplinary approach to digital media. As far as I understand, ETC don’t see themselves as particularly vocational but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that because our courses are rooted in traditional film roles that our students careers are necessarily assured. Every year there are more hybrid digital roles springing up whether in filmmaking itself or other areas of the entertainment industries. Virtual worlds like World of Warcraft are pulling huge audiences and raking in income that surpasses most feature films. With cinema and TV audiences on the decline maybe the future is closing in fast.
I think ETC are a great model for us to think about as we develop the way we teach filmmakers and equip them to create entertainment experiences.