Puttnam whizz-kid warning

April 16, 1999

Computers have given manipulative power to technicians but educators need to win back aesthetic control Tim Greenhalgh reports from CADE.

Take a technically-gifted computer specialist, add a hankering to use that talent on screen and you have all the ingredients for an aesthetic disaster that only education can counter.

There is a growing concern that infatuation with the manipulative power of the computer has led to the neglect of basic aesthetic principles. At the Computers in Art and Design Education (CADE 99) conference at the University of Teesside last week, this was a subtext that informed the keynotes, workshops and papers throughout the three-day event.

Lord Puttnam, who now describes himself as an educationist rather than a film producer, told his Middlesbrough audience: "A new generation of techno-nerds has emerged, all of whom can morph and manipulate images well beyond the limits of any fantasy that existed when I first entered the industry. But in the rush to master the equipment, many of the underlying aesthetic skills seem to have been lost. As a consequence, we are in danger of ending up with a generation of 'techno whizz-kids' who are woefully lacking in the ability to realise a narrative through any sensitive understanding of pace, tone and structure.

"We cannot allow this erosion of the imagination to take hold right across higher education - it is only by using these technologies creatively and by focusing on content that we'll unlock their true potential as a teaching tool."

This tension between technology and creativity is becoming increasingly apparent in the film industry. Greg Maguire, who worked as senior character animator for three years on Disney's forthcoming computer animated film Dinosaur, said that the means to learn computer animation had become generally available in the past decade.

The entry price of the tools had dropped from Pounds 20,000 to Pounds 2,500, but this development has not produced a corresponding increase in creative output. The reason is simply that technical competence does not translate into aesthetically substantial work.

"Producers have often forgotten that it is the artist, not the tools that make great works. Animators need to be fully immersed in the creative culture and history of their art form. They need to spend time looking outside the computer environment and learning useful ways of seeing the world.

"I realised that my computing background was inadequate for creative animation work and went back to school, learning traditional animation methods and life drawing so that I would be able to communicate with my teams in a language they all understood."

Maguire said that colleges must understand that learning animation techniques on computers will not produce a generation of gifted artists. Students need to experiment with traditional techniques and will learn more from this more tactile method in which shapes are repeatedly created, not mechanically copied. Teachers also had to imbue their students with a firm grounding in traditional story-telling techniques.

He said that the industry had made breathtaking progress in the decade since he began work as a computer animator, from crude modelling to detailed facial expressions and realistically textured fur and clothing.

"The battleground is realism. And the reason is it gives a sense of achievement. Realism gives us the ability to do anything, it gives the freedom to experiment."

But Maguire warned that this is being achieved at a cost. He would like to see greater simplicity in interface and tools design. These are becoming increasingly complex and cluttered. They get in the way of the creative process.

The interface metaphor, however, was developed for engineering design. Large industrial corporations are still the heaviest users of these tools and this dominance has hampered progress in redesigning them for artistic use.

The keyboard and mouse remain a significant barrier between the animator's imagination and its realisation. Software manuals have grown to fill entire shelves, a terrifying sight for any new animator. The user spends precious time finding "work-arounds", ways to cut through the complexities and achieve the desired result.

Reducing complexity to manageable proportions has informed the work of Roy Stringer, chief hypermedia architect at Amaze, the spin-out company part-owned by Liverpool John Moore's University. He was withering in his contempt for present methods of navigation on the Web and in other digital spaces. Hypertext links were the bane of the web, the worst communications interface yet devised.

"The system perplexes the user and fails in its objective - to communicate. The only place for these links should be at the base of the web page, not in the body."

He challenged designers to test the limits of "information space". Digital information sources had more complexity than a flat plane or straight line but still had constraints. Constraints were positive, they made you think and gave and were something to work against.

Stringer prefers to organise information around multifaceted solid shapes. In a workshop he invited teams to try to apply "Navihedron" principles to a food information space.

He said the 3D interface was a way of expressing non-linear heterarchies of information. The aim was to present the user with an attractive, simple, graphic and easily navigable way of negotiating information space. Any data object would be no more than three mouse clicks away.

"As a rule, people are attracted by a minimum of four choices and repelled by choices exceeding nine. Unexpected variations make people want to explore. Real hypermedia is the goal."

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