Art and science must unite behind the screen

30th June 1995 at 01:00
Work in the film industry, like the post-16 school curriculum, has traditionally been divided into "arts" and "sciences". We have the "creatives" and the "technicians". Underpinning this delightfully simple view of the world is the assumption that the "creatives" - clearly the superior of the two categories - have wonderful ideas which the "technicians" - the drone-like underlings - then capture on celluloid or video-tape.

The reality of the industry is, of course, rather different. Indeed, the history of cinema is the story of a medium in which technology has consistently opened up new possibilities which the "creatives" have been slow to exploit fully. In a mass medium in which audiences will always be attracted by innovation, the most successful film-makers are those who have most effectively married the newest technology with that most ancient and unchanging of all the arts - good story telling. Were the computer programmers who created the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park "creatives" or "technicians"? The question is, of course, absurd. They were both - and most of them are now a good deal wealthier than they were as well.

The convergence of skills and disciplines which resulted in Jurassic Park is a metaphor for what is happening on a much wider scale throughout the film industry. In fact, the industry is itself one relatively small albeit crucial component of a much bigger and more complex convergence of technology and skills which links films, television, computing and telephony in a new world which we rather loosely describe as "multi-media".

Digitalisation lies at the heart of this convergence and, like so many earlier chapters in the history of our industry, the technology is running far ahead of our imagination as to how we might fully exploit it. But we can already say with some confidence that this new electronic multi-media world is becoming more and more powerful. It is colonising fields of activity far beyond the borders of entertainment. It is permeating every aspect of our lives as well as every stage of our lives form early childhood to old age. It follows that we have an absolute responsibility as a society to ensure that our own children can use these media with confidence.

Without wanting in any way to dismiss the imaginative day-to-day practice in schools up and down the country, it does seem to me fantastically irresponsible that we do not yet have a formally recognised system at the heart of the school curriculum which teaches children how to interpret and select from among the barrage of messages, inducements, and downright seductions that pour down on them every day from an assortment of electronic screens.

In addition, of course, these media are increasingly inter-active. It is therefore, not simply a matter of helping children to become discriminating consumers. They need to be able to participate actively, equipped with the necessary technological understanding and the ability to use that understanding in a creative way. The two elements, the technical and the creative, feed each other in exactly the same way that a musician, however gifted, is unlikely to reach beyond a certain level of critical appreciation or performance without having at least some understanding of music theory.

If we are truly becoming an "information society", then we owe it to our children to give them the means of exercising to the full both the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship in that society.

There's yet further dimension to this. As John Berger put it in his seminal book Ways of Seeing, "The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language and for what purpose."

Within that new language of images it is unarguable that moving images are becoming the dominant dialect. What is true for art is true, too, of almost every aspect of our culture. And since language is the central means by which cultures and their societies retain their values and their integrity, it follows that our ability to decide "for what purpose" we want to use language becomes crucial to our future sense of self identity, both as individuals and as a society.

I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that if we fail to re-design our education system so that it places this new image-driven language at its core, then we are throwing away our future as surely as if we were to insist on teaching our children to write with a stylus and a clay tablet when the rest of the world had moved on to pen and paper.

Nor do I think this is to be a Utopian demand. The reality is that we are already one of the most computer literate nations in the world, with more extensive and intensive use of information technology in our schools and homes than any of our European neighbours. We have, for example, more than twice as many CD-Rom publishers as any other member of the European Union.

What is more, we seem to produce a steady stream of professionals in the media industries who combine sophisticated technical skills with genuine creativity. It has been estimated that something like 40 per cent of the world's commercially successful video games have been created in Britain. In an industry that is worth $10 billion a year, and growing fast, that means there are commercial as well as cultural factors to concentrate the mind.

In the field of animation, one of the most dynamic specialisms of the new multi-media environment, Britain in a very tangible way dominates the world, having won four of the past five Oscars and every single one of its European equivalents, the "Golden Cartoon", since the award was created. We have what is probably still, just, the best television industry and one which has the ability, and the experience, to become the world's leading maker of factual programming.

We have some of the world's most sophisticated telecom and computer companies and, in the Open University, the most experienced and innovative institution of its kind. We have many of the best creative software houses anywhere in the world. On top of it all, of course, we have as our mother tongue one of the richest languages in the world with an incomparable literature and an unchallenged position as the most widely used and learned language.

We have, in short, a very significant head start. The technology of multi-media is beginning to dissolve some of the distinctions that we have casually allowed to grow up in our modern industrial society - the divisions between home and office, work and leisure, entertainment and education. Could it not also be said that in significant ways it is making irrelevant the split between art and technology which runs through so many of our cultural assumptions and which is still deeply entrenched in much of our own education system?

If we can bridge that divide effectively, the results could be truly momentous. We would be doing much more than just adding another subject to the curriculum. We would be putting Britain in the forefront of a process which is changing the nature of formal education itself, changing the relationship between pupil as "receiver" of knowledge and teacher as "giver", making them more like partners in a life-long joint enterprise. And we would be contributing, too, to the healing of a split between the "creatives" and the "technicians", between the arts and the sciences, that has done much needlessly to disable our society in the two centuries since the Industrial Revolution.

The recent multi-media essay competition organised by the National Council for Educational Technology demonstrated the huge talent that exists in the class-rooms all over Britain for the creative exploitation of multi-media technology. To embrace its possibilities whole-heartedly would bring immense benefits to our culture, our economy and to the lives and prospects of our children.

Sir David Puttnam is an independent film producer and chairman of the National Film and Television School TES2 June 30 1995 David Puttnam tells schools and colleges to end creative and technological separatism, for Britain's future in a multi-media world.

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