So secret is the next major international film being tweaked on a Bournemouth campus that university staff are sworn to secrecy. Even students working alongside aren't allowed to peek. Some 30 recent graduates are working with leading visual effects house Framestore on the latest movie in post-production.
They've already worked here on the likes of the latest Sherlock Holmes film and Wrath of the Titans. This is an outpost of the London-based Framestore, set up in the small, specialist Arts University College Bournemouth (AUCB) to harness emerging talent in creative design – at a cheaper venue.
Welcome to the world of creative arts degrees. Most are immersive – often simulating the professional, technology-driven environment where these fledgling designers, artists and performers will soon work. And in the words of one university professional, they are "bloody hard work". Many institutions have forged direct links with industry to enable students to gain real-world experience during their degrees and build a portfolio. Right now, digital effects students are all a-quiver at the prospect of more Star Wars films after Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm.
"We work with live briefs," says Simon Pride, head of marketing at AUCB, where students of illustration have been working on the next classic Haynes car workshop manual. And on the Costume with Performance Design course this year students designed costumes for Weymouth's Olympic opening ceremony. Next door, at the award-winning National Centre for Computer Animation at Bournemouth University, a separate institution, students are learning the ropes of digital creation. Recent years have seen a surge in computer-generated imagery, which has come a long way since dinosaurs first roared in the blockbuster Jurassic Park. So even the most-talented artists need an understanding these days of the digital technology underpinning the industry.
Britain is renowned for its sparky, restless creativity and swathes of small businesses have flourished since the 1990s. But in the first year of university fees up to £9,000, applications for creative arts and design degrees have fallen, on average, by 16 per cent – and in some cases by nearly 30 per cent. This, and the omission of any arts-based subject from the new English Baccalaureate, has rattled leading figures in the arts.
Some predict a creative talent shortage in the years to come as students neglect the likes of dancing for subjects such as dentistry. Yet the creative industries, ranging from advertising to architecture, fashion and film and gaming and design, are among the fastest-growing sectors in the UK, says the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). "There's an idea that it's less 'proper' to do a creative degree than a traditional subject, but that's plain wrong," says Pride. Reflecting upon the success of the Olympic ceremonies Martin Roth, director of the V&A, said this month: "If subjects such as art, design, music, drama and dance are squeezed to the edges of the curriculum, Britain's creative economy could be destroyed within a generation."
One and a half million people work in the creative industry, or in creative roles in other industries, according to government figures published less than a year ago. And creative industries contribute 2.9 per cent of the UK's gross value added – an economic indicator used to measure the performance of an industry sector – and account for 10.6 per cent of exports of services.
"It's vital that the key strengths of businesses in the creative sector are nurtured," says the CBI. A separate report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research forecast that London's media, internet and creative industries will become vital to the capital's economic growth in the years to 2017. And, as AUCB points out, employment can be healthy even if salaries tend to be lower: 97 per cent of AUCB graduates find work within six months, a result that places the university fifth in the UK for employability.
Nearly one in three people in the creative sector will work for themselves at some point, according to government figures. It's a prospect about which composer Nicky Royston is fairly sanguine. After graduating in composition from the University of Chichester in October this year, she already has several film credits to her name and is confident about supplementing her income with teaching or creating backing tracks for performers. "Ever since I heard the soundtrack to Casper the Friendly Ghost as a little girl, I've wanted to write music for film – it's incredible how music can control emotion," she says. "I've been composing since I was 14. I get a real buzz from hearing my music being performed. I know it's competitive – you have to network and pitch for work."
Would-be students face a huge choice of courses in visual and creative arts, from painting, writing music, fashion, dance, drama, design and film production. World-renowned courses are on offer across Britain, from the cluster of London-based colleges within the University of the Arts London and the University for the Creative Arts, to University College Falmouth in the South-west, to the art schools of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
To help you choose the right course, industry body Creative Skillset (www.creativeskillset.org) gives recognition to courses that are judged to offer solid industry links and prepare students well for immediate work. This year it accredited 96 courses, from photo imaging, post-production to interactive media and art and design. "Employment in the creative industries continues to grow at 2 per cent; however, there's an oversupply of graduates who've received a general 'creative' education," explains the Creative Industries Council. These days, pigeon-holing people as arts or science types creates a false distinction: as the industry becomes more digitised and integrated, employers need graduates with an understanding of science and maths as well as the arts.
Having an intelligent "Plan B" is essential, says Ben Hall, head of music at the University of Chichester where about 600 undergraduates study a range of specialist music degrees with a highly practical component. "We are keen for our students to understand they will be defined by how they are paid – even West End performers have to supplement their fees," he explains. So students of the hugely popular musical theatre degree learn the nuts and bolts of staging a show – with a view to working in events management, for example. "Your Plan B might be huge fun," says Hall. And the good news for musicians is that most find work – partly owing to a huge demand for children's music lessons.
No doubt salaries within creative arts often lag behind traditional professions: government research shows that a third of creative arts graduates were earning less than £15,000 some six years into their career, although three-quarters reported they were satisfied with their work.
"It's a myth to suggest there are plenty of jobs out there for artists," says Stuart Bennett, head of the University of Edinburgh College of Art. "Many students go into self-employment. Our third-year focuses on the external to give a real idea of what it's like to be out in the art world."
Students are encouraged to set up co-operatives, work on live commissions and seek internships, Bennett says, "to give an idea of what it's like to make your way as a young artist".
Edinburgh, a respected art college, is collaborating with university departments to enrich the scope of the degree. A joint project with the university's animal science Roslin Institute – responsible for Dolly the Sheep – resulted in an exhibition featuring animals in art. "We are trying to create dynamic artists who have a string to their bow above and beyond the discipline in which they have studied," says Bennett.