Tools of the trade for the next genius generation

June 14, 1996

Alison Utley finds caution mixed with optimism in the planned Leeds multimedia showcase centre

Imagine what the creative genius of Leonardo would have come up with had he been able to get his hands on the multimedia technology of 1996. Masterpieces such as the "Last Supper" in three dimensions overlaid with the actual words of Christ? The "Mona Lisa" performing the various stages of her enigmatic smile?

Or is the creative process which generates works of art entirely detached from the means of their production? Very much so, according to experts at Leeds College of Art and Design who are currently putting the finishing touches to a state-of-the-art multimedia centre.

"I am absolutely certain that the creative process is unaffected by this technology," says multimedia resource manager Garry Rathbone. "We tell students right from the start that these computers are not to be used as design tools but rather as production tools. The designs are still created with pen and paper."

As they always have been and possibly always will be. Mr Rathbone compares the process to the making of a film. "You don't build the set before you have written the script," he says. College principal Edmund Wigan agrees with this theory although he does concede that adding powerful digital image manipulation into the creative melting pot enables artists and designers to do things which previously could not be done. In Mr Rathbone's experience, however, many people find their creativity is inhibited rather than liberated, until they achieve a high level of expertise with the equipment. But multimedia is still in its infancy and the extent of its influence on the creative process cannot be properly assessed until the current generation of artists have shown what they can do.

Uncertainty also surrounds the next generation of technology. Leeds College of Art has spent Pounds 1.5 million with the aim of creating a centre of excellence for the media industry in West Yorkshire and beyond. But the college freely admits that its precious hardware and software will only come into the "leading edge" category for about three years. Mr Rathbone was asked to provide a five-year plan for the centre.

"I can't do it because we have no idea what's coming next," he says, acknowledging the extent of concerns over the depersonalisation of life increasingly controlled by technology. Pundits say it will not be long before your TV can access any channel in the world, the Internet, a "global jukebox", and a wide range of shopping facilities. "Perhaps the best investment for the future will be a comfortable sofa," Mr Rathbone says.

The college's investment - generously supplemented by the Leeds Development Agency, the Department of Education and Employment which accepted its bid for Pounds 500,000 of Competitiveness Fund support, and Pounds 450,000 from the Hunter fund - should attract high quality undergraduates as well as companies seeking specialised training.

To draw in the local community there will be a series of evening classes for adults which take participants through an interactive CD project from concept through planning, production of content in various media, and authoring of the finished product. CDs are now so cheap that the staff use discarded discs as coffee mats. Professional courses, which are just getting off the ground, range from basic computing, photography and video production through to high level multimedia production including layout design, scanning and manipulation of photographic images, digital video and audio, and 3D animation. Mr Wigan is confident of demand. Leeds College of Art has just carried out a survey of 150 companies involved in the media industry. More than a third expressed concern over their inability to keep ahead of all the advances in technology and in particular the difficulties of obtaining appropriate training Between 1992 and 1996 the college has increased the number of students studying in the field by 100 per cent, and more and more students are taking part in higher level courses - up from just 4 per cent five years ago to 25 per cent now. But Mr Wigan stresses that the college's approach to multimedia differs fundamentally from that of, say, a high-tech university department.

"They would be likely to focus on the 'how' of this technology, the programming intricacies and so on. We on the other hand take a very different approach, seeing it merely as a tool like a brush or a pen."

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