Saint John Walker
The VFX course leader discusses how to best build skills
The Norwich University of the Arts VFX course leader discusses the importance of skill building
Universities should stop obsessing over storytelling and start teaching worldbuilding skills, says Saint John Walker of Norwich University of the Arts
it’s said that when Russian ruler Catherine the Great made a grand tour of the Ukraine in 1787 down the
River Dnieper, prince Grigory potemkin was so keen to impress her that he ordered fake village facades to be erected along the banks complete with peasants acting out charades of industriousness. This visual propaganda masked the poverty of his misrule and, so the story goes, fooled the monarch.
These days, potemkin, with his indisputable skills of organisation and visual deception, could find a place to work in the film industry. Those of us involved in visual effects can increasingly be thought of as world builders, creating visually detailed 3D spaces for action or stories to take place in.
Historically, VFX and ‘fooling the eye’ have both been given a bum rap when used beyond film and television, especially when they’ve been employed by politicians like (but certainly not limited to) potemkin. They’ve often been utilised in propaganda – for example, the recent photoshopped images of cloned north Korean missiles taking off. However, the time has come to appraise the idea of using VFX and world-building skills in the real world, outside of entertainment, as a force for good.
We tend to privilege narrative in today’s world of media education – after all, it’s a big deal. We moan about how poor we thought the story was as we emerge from the cinema or discuss the plot and story arcs featured in episodic television. We’re starting to understand how the stories we tell affect how we see the world, with their morality and character rewards.
in 1985, Alison Bechdel formulated the idea that any film that features at least two women can be analysed to see if they talk to each other about anything other than a man. This observation became known as the Bechdel test, and even today you’ll be surprised how few films pass the challenge. While this is not an indicator of quality or how well a film is made, it does reveal some common underpinnings in our standard cinema stories.
i think it’s time for us to move our main attention away from stories, which don’t always tend to unite us in a common shared world anymore and sometimes even exacerbate our differences. instead, we should begin to think more about building imaginative digital worlds or spaces where people can create their own tales. But this will be harder than you might think.
our imagination is slowly being invaded and stunted by brands. Science fiction is a particularly useful genre to encourage debate about where we are collectively going through the lens of where we are now but i’ve noticed just how hard it is for VFX students today to think beyond the inventory of the powerful screen imagery that they consume on a regular basis.
Given the choice, VFX students will often design and build dystopian, post-apocalyptic scenes or imagery of ecological collapse, which are usually imitations of certain cinematic science fiction themes. They draw on Blade Runner’s rain and neon, or the totalitarianism of The
Hunger Games, or the wastelands of Mad Max. However, this isn’t entirely surprising as thinking up a convincing and optimistic new world that has its own logic takes a considerable amount of multidisciplinary thinking, and world building as a methodology has never really been taught at school. in our small way at norwich University of the Arts, we are looking at how we can create new worlds to bring about change. For instance, we are working with the Zoological Society of London on a project to save South China’s endangered Hainan gibbon by creating imagery to raise awareness of its plight. We’re re-imagining its world and presenting 3D images to the communities that live among it, as well as international ecology groups. it’s an inverse potemkin village showing the world as it is, using VFX to create a vision of the gibbon’s world that will be able to change hearts and minds. it’s about creating a world where stories and myths about the gibbons can be remembered and retold.
now is exactly the time that we need to encourage world building as a 21st-century skill to design new imaginative spaces and reclaim a vision of what our future could be and to make world building the new storytelling and this isn’t merely an academic exercise.
now more than ever we need world builders and social architects to imagine new ways in which we can live together. Governments around the globe are starting to imagine smart cities as more of the world’s population gathers in conurbations, and these cities need re-imagining by artists and designers. With the threat and promise of driverless cars, the internet of things and competing artificial intelligence bots, we need to design these spaces, imagine new ways of living, and let the population live out their own stories in them.