There's nothing remarkable about courses that train doctors in the mechanics of the human body. But it takes a particular kind of doctoral education to provide an in-depth knowledge of the physiology of characters generated by computer.

Equipping software engineers with the technical prowess needed to perfect the hyper-real animation used in films such as the forthcoming science fiction epic Avatar and the award-winning video game series Grand Theft Auto is the mission of Britain's new Centre for Digital Entertainment. Between now and 2014, the £6.3m venture – a collaboration between the universities of Bournemouth and Bath – aims to produce 50 "digital doctors" capable of plugging a growing skills shortage at senior levels in the gaming and visual effects sector.

The four-year programme offers students extended placements working on live industry projects under the tutelage of companies such as Aardman Animations, the Bristol-based creators of Wallace and Gromit, and Double Negative, a CGI powerhouse whose recent credits include The Dark Knight and the last two Harry Potter films. In return, these partners cherry-pick from their ranks a new generation of innovators to rival Nick Park and George Lucas.

Professor Jian Zhang, co-founder of the project and the director of Bournemouth's longstanding Computer Animation Research Centre, says of its rationale: "As academics, we've long carried out research, but the traditional approach of academia is to fund PhD students who work on one project over three to five years. In the games and animation sector, industry moves much faster. Companies often tell us: 'Your ideas are interesting, but our projects take three to five months'. We've spent some time thinking about this relationship, so when the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) issued a call for new doctoral training centres last year, we applied to set one up."

The new centre will operate out of Bournemouth and Bath's existing, industry-standard, graphics and animation studios. But students will spend three out of the four years attached to their host companies – throughout which they'll receive a £14,790-a-year tax-free stipend, drawn from the universities' EPSRC grant, in addition to modest top-up "salaries" paid by the companies themselves.

Simon Roth, 22, is one of five first-year students who are about to begin working on their PhD proposals in the hope of following in the footsteps of the numerous alumni who have left Bournemouth and Bath over the past 20 years to pursue successful careers with companies such as Pixar and Dreamworks. Later this month, Roth, a Bournemouth graduate, will start his attachment with Cambridge-based Frontier Developments, working on its much-anticipated new war game The Outsider. He was "hired" on the strength of a research project he undertook for his Bachelors in computer animation, which saw him devise new ways of rendering computer characters (that's shading them in, to the uninitiated).

"While I was doing my degree, my tutors suggested I might want to think about a PhD, but I was concerned that I might just spend years working on research that had no direct industry application," he explains. "When I saw this scheme advertised internally, though, I realised it could enable you to mix an industry training with academia. You could have your cake and eat it."

For Frontier founder David Braben, the near-legendary designer whose seminal 1980s space adventure game Elite helped spearhead the first wave of home computer mania, the new doctoral programme is long overdue. "There's a lack of respect in academia for the whole entertainment business, not just graphics and animation, so any small steps to improve that are welcome," he says. "If you look at some of the work we do in areas like artificial intelligence and our simulations that are used in the finance sector, our research is used in lots of other areas, but people don't always appreciate that."

He says the recent growth of generic gaming courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level has created a widening skills gap that has forced the company to recruit disproportionately from overseas.

"Britain used to be number one in the world in this industry, but we've slipped to about third. At a time of rising unemployment, it's odd to have to look overseas for people. It's not that the calibre of applicants has fallen so much as the issue of what they're being taught. Colleges are branding things 'games courses' when they're not: they've had no contact with industry. You have games courses that are essentially more studies of games than how to make them."

Visit www.digital-entertainment.org for information on the new programme

Comments