Holy smoke, what's up?

29th July 2011 at 01:00
From video games to film effects, the UK is a world leader in creative digital technology - so why is it not promoted in schools, asks Helen Beckett

Imagine being one of the team behind a huge film hit such as Inception, or a game series such as Tomb Raider. If pupils knew about the career opportunities available to them, surely they would be more enthusiastic about ICT in school?

Not the case. A review by the Association for UK interactive entertainment (UKIE) in February highlighted a shortage of creative digital skills, and schools came in for a heavy dose of criticism. The Livingstone-Hope review found that too many schools teach ICT in a passive way and do not make students aware of the available career opportunities (TESS, 22 April).

The number one recommendation of the report is to put computer science into the curriculum. Currently, the focus tends to be on teaching pupils to use office software products, rather than creating their own digital products, explains Ian Livingstone, co-founder of UK games giant Eidos and chair of the Skillset computer games forum.

Matthew Applegate (aka pixelh8), a digital performance artist who uses the sounds of video games to form original compositions, and ambassador for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics network, shares the concerns expressed in the review. He was appalled to overhear two teachers at a conference recently discussing getting pupils "Microsoft ready".

"It's a sad fact that if you ask young pupils how games are made, more often than not they will reply `in Tesco'," says Mr Applegate. In fact, combining basic programming skills with art is a great foundation for a career in the creative digital industry.

Mr Applegate has been on a personal mission for the past five years to provide pupils with access to digital equipment and the skills that enable them to harness their own creativity (see panel). His involvement began when a teacher friend invited him to her primary school. He took pound;10,000 worth of musical equipment along and let the children play with it.

"I explained to them how to use it properly, and they got real confidence and a sense of empowerment from it," he says. Mr Applegate believes such workshops can be life-changing: "It's a common theme for composers to have a one-off experience that changes their lives and turns them on to music."

Another advocate and practitioner of digital creativity is Adobe Education leader and secondary art teacher Greg Hodgson of Chalfonts Community College in Buckinghamshire. He confirms that a lack of understanding of career opportunities for digital artists pervades the school community.

"The most common misconception (of digital art) is that `it's just art' - that is, painting and drawing. Parents do not understand its application in industry and pupils are just as naive about career opportunities."

Mr Hodgson tries to make teaching relevant to current industries and ensures lessons develop the skills needed for real jobs and careers. Gaming, for example, requires a high level of coding using ActionScript and pupils use this programming language during his digital art lessons.

While digital art enables pupils to work in a variety of digital formats and develop a range of software skills, the ability to solve problems and think creatively is paramount.

"Good art has to go through a complex series of thought processes and refinements," says Mr Hodgson. "As pupils progress and develop, they are often forced to confront higher-level maths and physics problems within specific software packages and workflows."

This link between science and art is often ignored or misunderstood in schools, according to the Livingstone-Hope Review.

"Too often these subjects sit at opposite poles of subject choices when it comes to A-levels," says Mr Livingstone. In his industry, he points out, the disciplines are closely intertwined when it comes to creating video games and special effects.

His words are echoed by Garreth Gaydon, recruitment manager for Escape Studios, which trains graduates in visual effects. This industry grew at a phenomenal 16.8 per cent between 2006 and 2008 and the UK is leading the field for visual effects in films such as Inception, The Golden Compass, The Dark Knight and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

"To get an entry-level job in this industry it's ideal to have a computer science background, but you also need skills in art and design," explains Mr Gaydon. There are roles for programmers, he says, but usually they need an artistic eye and to be able to create and manipulate characters and effects in 3D. This calls for ability to program and put together a "show- reel" of work - the digital equivalent of a portfolio.

While government initiatives beef up schools' competence in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, Mr Livingstone prefers to add "art" to the acronym and looks forward to an age of STEAM.

The fusion of art and science is essential to understanding the digital economy, he reckons, and poses the rhetorical question: "What can be better than to equip students with these core skills to participate in the 21st century?"


Digital performance artist Matthew Applegate and Greg Hodgson of Chalfonts Community College offer their teaching ideas.

Digital art

A Day at the Seaside is a digital recreation of a beach. Pupils use digital audio recorders and cameras to capture their experience of the beach. The artefacts are pieced together to re-create the day interactively, using a replica telescope fitted with a digital monitor. GH

Games design

We take pupils from the beginning to the end of the game-making process: brainstorming, drawing the graphics by hand, re-drawing them in a computer and then designing the levels. It teaches them the processes, in some cases extending to computational thinking. MA


Use free software such as Scratch for younger pupils and Processing for P4-7 and S1-3 pupils - it teaches them to program, to think computationally, and to think about existing programs and games they use. I use either cheap or free software in my workshops so kids can go home and continue tinkering. MA

Sound design

A simple recorder and free audio software such as Audacity open up a whole new world of sound. Simple household items such as a stick of celery create the most horrific bone-crunching sound effects, used in several video games. Dangle a microphone inside a slinky and hit it to recreate the laser sound from Star Wars. MA


Flash-based animation teaches rotoscoping, editing frame by frame. Students have even held an animation festival this year at Bucks New University. GH

Video content

The use of Premiere from S1 onwards develops editing skills, sequencing and digital literacy. GH.

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