A rising star powered by Britain

With a creative track record second to none, the UK could be a world leader in multimedia. Milly Jenkins looks at efforts to realise this potential through training schemes that fuse art and technology

Milly Jenkins
Monday 02 June 1997 23:02 BST

"We have a capacity for original thought that is quite extraordinary," says the film producer Sir David Puttnam. "I think there is a national native genius." And that genius, he says, needs to be hitched to the rising star of the multimedia industry. Sir David has recently emerged as a champion of the British multimedia cause. There is no reason, he argues, why Britain could not be a leading force in the multimedia market. With a strong track record in music, fashion, film and animation, Britain has the potential to become a world leader. But training is the key. And, as Sir David argues, training needs to focus on creativity, not just technology.

A few years ago, Nicholas Negroponte, the multimedia guru and founder of MIT's Media Lab, said that the future of multimedia depended on the fusion of art and technology. His message is only just beginning to register. Multimedia and publishing companies have recently been stung by the failure of the CD-Rom market to take off. The problem has partly been with the medium itself. CD-Roms are being dubbed the "Beta of the Nineties". But the real failure has been in content, in finding creative ideas and designs to make CD-Roms that are worth buying.

So far, very few people involved in training have taken on this idea of fusing art and technology. Artec, the Arts Technology Centre, is an exception. Set up in 1990 by Islington Council, Artec runs a year-long training course for local young people who are new to technology but have creative talent. Although hundreds apply for the course, there are only 16 places.

Frank Boyd, Artec's director, says that unlike other multimedia courses, the focus is on content creation, coming up with innovative design ideas and solutions. Although students learn to use the latest multimedia tools, a generic approach is taken to problem solving and team working. In an industry where the tools of the trade change rapidly, they have to be able to learn new skills quickly.

Looking around Artec's building, there is a notable absence of the dead feeling that often infiltrates local authority training courses. One of the reasons is that Artec is geared to serving the real multimedia world outside. Students work on projects set by multimedia companies and go on long work placements. Artec also works as a research centre, experimenting with new ideas and concepts, and inviting artists in to work on projects.

Artec graduates have a high success rate when it comes to finding work - 80 per cent of students go straight into jobs and several have set up their own companies. Multimedia entertainment companies, such as Douglas Adams' Digital Village, say that Artec is producing exactly the kind of creative, skilled people they need.

It is tempting to imagine that what Britain needs is a chain of large- scale Artecs. But Frank Boyd says this would be a mistake: "I'm alarmed at the prospect of trying to establish large training centres that try to train too many people at once. The key is to have projects set up on a network basis, small institutions that specialise and try to meet local market needs."

Sir David has been to see Artec, and is impressed. "I think what happens there is largely related to Frank Boyd's personal altruism and energy," he says. "The danger in talking about nationwide schemes is that people like him would be spread very thin. What we need is an Artec that trains the trainers.

"We need more genuinely good, inspirational trainers across the board. We don't have them at the moment because they're not paid properly and given the dignity that teachers and mentors ought to be."

As part of his drive to kick-start the UK multimedia industry, Sir David has helped to found Createc, a creative media arts and technologies centre. As part of the National Film and Television School, based at Ealing Studios, Createc's aim is to provide a space for experimental research. But it also plans to train people already working in the "high end" of the industry, as well as developing online training - "a virtual centre for media education and training".

John Newbegin, a colleague of Sir David's at Enigma Productions, has also been involved in setting up Createc: "The idea is to explore the possibilities of digital, interactive media with a view to content creation. If we want to move on to the next stage of audio-visual technology, we've got to look not at how we're going to use interactivity, but what we're going to do with it. How can narrative be used in the interactive environment, for example?"

One of Createc's first projects has been a collaboration with David Bowie, creating synthetic images that can interact with live stage performances. "To our amazement, quite a few people have come over from the States to see Createc and said it's fantastic that nobody there is doing anything like it," Newbegin says.

This same commitment to experimentation can be seen at Artec. "It's absolutely crucial to the development of the industry that there is opportunity for people to experiment with new ideas, new products, new approaches to music or storytelling, whatever it might be," says Frank Boyd. "New entrants to the profession and creative people need backing to play around, play with ideas, see what's possible and create products that people are really going to buy."

But it takes money to train and experiment. Artec's turnover this year will be just under pounds 1m. Islington Council contributes pounds 150,000 a year to the training course. The rest comes from the Arts Council, London Arts Board, EU schemes and Artec's own money-generating projects, in Web page and CD-Rom design. Frank Boyd would like to see more money from the public sector, and especially the National Lottery, going into training.

"The industry doesn't have the money to do it," he says. "We're mostly talking about very small multimedia companies that can't afford it. When you look at the millions being spent on the Royal Opera House, it makes you think about what would happen if some of it was invested in the cultural industries of the future."

But Sir David, who sits on the Arts Council Lottery Board, says lottery money can help only in the short term: "Training cannot be a wholly public- sector obligation. We've got to find a way of dragging the private sector, kicking and screaming, into acknowledging that they need to spend money on projects that will eventually make the products that they benefit from in the long term".

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