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Bowling Green State University may be in the heart of rural Ohio, but it plays home to one of the nation’s largest Digital Arts programs. With tracks that include Computer Animation & Video, Imaging and Interactive Multimedia, BGSU students also have a multitude of specialized courses to choose from that reflect the technological and industry evolutions of the field.
To learn more about the Digital Arts program, we chatted with Professor Bonnie Mitchell. Working in a range of digital media herself, Mitchell’s passion for emerging (and converging) digital arts fields echoes BGSU’s integrative approach. (This interview was conducted via email & edited for length & clarity).
ACR: The diversity of the Digital Arts programs at BGSU is enviable and encompasses several areas of study. To start, tell us a little bit about the genesis of the program, its scope and what it includes.
BM: The Computer Art program at Bowling Green State University began in the late 1980s with a lab full of Atari computers. By the late 90s we had transitioned to two labs full of Silicon Graphics machines running Power Animator and other high-end graphics software. The program originally focused on computer animation but by 2000, three distinct areas of study had emerged: 3D Computer Animation, Interactive Art and Digital Imaging. We currently offer a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) and Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Digital Arts.
As well as offering core and advanced courses in each area, we integrated special topic courses as an essential component of the curriculum. Our goal was to integrate contemporary practices and technologies as quickly as possible into the curriculum. We also began to offer supporting classes that bridged areas such as Virtual Environments, Advanced 3D Modeling, Digital Photography, Digital Video and Special Effects.
ACR: Do students choose an area of study to focus on or do they take courses in all three components?
BM: Students are able to focus on a specific area or mix and match as they see fit. There are a number of courses that cross boundaries and integrate the conceptual, technical and aesthetic aspects of many different disciplines. I always ask the freshman what they are interested in doing in the field of Digital Arts and the answers vary from year to year depending on popular culture influences. During the Star Wars and Toy Story days everyone wanted to be an animator. This year I saw a new trend – a percentage of the students wanted to develop mobile apps.
What typically happens is that the students take a few intermediate-level classes and they become enchanted with a new technology, medium or genre that they did not know even existed. Sometimes they discover what they don’t like doing. There are many students that love watching animation but really don’t like making it, and they don’t find this out until they try it. In the field of animation and interactive media, it is essential that you have a good grounding in digital imaging so all undergraduate students take an introductory course in this area. After that the students have a certain number of courses in the Digital Arts that they must take at various levels but it is really up to them to choose. We work with them each semester to guide them and recommend specific courses to accomplish their goals.
ACR: It sounds like the evolving nature of technology and the industry informs BGSU’s approach in the Digital Arts…
BM: One of BGSU’s strengths has been our ability to keep up with the rapidly changing field of technology. We always have the most recent software and our computers have powerful graphics cards that allow us to handle complex dynamics and rendering situations. I once heard someone call us “the technology school in the cornfield”. I had to laugh because although we are not located in a large city, we are incredibly progressive in regards to our attitude about technology in the arts.
Our faculty are all life-long learners and get very excited about new developments in the field. They jump at the chance to develop a new course. We offer a number of specialized courses accordingly that range from character design, virtual environments, special effects, animation mechanics, advanced modeling, alternative print processes, creative mobile app development, animation principles and more.
The broadening of the animation field has also influenced our diverse offerings. Mobile web app development is the newest area attracting young animators and artists. Through the use of canvas and HTML 5/CSS 3, an animator can create interactive animations and abstract art. We are teaching a course on Machinima using game engines to create animation. I taught an experimental time-based imaging class where 2D artists could realize their ideas over time- sort of like motion graphics.
ACR: Your own career has spanned across many applications and areas of research, hasn’t it?
BM: Yes. I began writing computer code in 1984 while studying fine art, computer science and education and I have always taken an interdisciplinary approach to art and animation. I typically stray into unknown areas in my work, experimenting with technologies and aesthetic approaches and I like to merge media and use computer tools in non-traditional ways. One of my areas of focus has been immersing the viewer in the art experience. With the cost of projectors dropping rapidly it is becoming mainstream to fill a space with projections. My first immersive installation artworks were developed in 1990 and still today I am more interested in creating an experience rather than an object. I have also begun collaborating with an electroacoustic composer.
ACR: What are your near- and long-term visions of the digital arts fields?
BM: My near-term vision of the digital art and animation field is that the distinction between the various forms of art such as digital painting and painting, and digital animation and animation, will disappear – they are disappearing already. Convergence is happening and we will need to create university programs and courses that focus on themes, artistic approaches or conceptual schools of thought rather than media. I also see interactive 3d animation in a browser on the web coming soon. The new CSS standards are evolving rapidly and what was not possible last year is mainstream this year. Animation is now feasible on the web without Flash. Once the 3D Canvas and web3D standards become mainstream, we will see application developers create easy to use programs for animators and artists.
My long-term vision of the digital art field reflects my interest in experience rather than object. Although our quest for virtual reality has undergone many false starts (head mounted displays to SecondLife), I do think we will eventually develop a holodeck-like portal to communicate and interact with others. This ubiquitous environment will depend on artists and animators to create engaging content. I foresee animations where you can personally become part of the visual environment or story. You would be able to walk around in the animated environment and interact with elements and change the final outcome. Maybe I am dreaming, but I really would really love to feel and smell the simulated particles in my own work.
ACR: How do you prepare your students for some of these challenges and evolutions?
BM: I think the most important thing students need to know is how to solve problems. Whether it is technical, visual, logical, creative… it does not matter. I also think it is important for students to think deeply about issues. Being open to alternate viewpoints and considering multiple approaches to problem solving enables a student to be flexible and adapt to our rapidly changing world. In our Digital Arts program, we give assignments that enable students to express ideas (that are) important to them. Through critiques we help them articulate those ideas and consider multiple viewpoints. They then have to take the technical information provided and mix it with information they gain from other students, on the Internet or in books to create their specific animation or artwork.
We also use active learning strategies to provide our students an opportunity to be the one to uncover the information and then share that knowledge with others. This fully engages the students in the learning experience and facilitates deep retention of knowledge. We use contemporary technology in innovative ways in the classroom to enhance learning. Using applications such as Facebook groups, Google Docs, SecondLife, Skype, Mobile Apps and Twitter, we hope to enhance learning and prepare students for the challenges they will face tomorrow – not just today.
ACR: On that note, I noticed quite a few collaborative courses in the program. Talk about the importance of group work for developing digital artists.
BM: In animation, I believe it is important for the students to go through the entire process of creating an animation before engaging in a collaborative animation. Once they understand the entire process, students often discover specific aspects of the pipeline that they are particularly good at. Creating a collaborative animation enables students to refine their skills in an area and also learn how to work with others to accomplish a highly complex task. It involves negotiation, compromise, time management, communication, balanced contribution and reaping the benefits of multiple brains converging to tackle a single task.
At BGSU, we have a class specifically designed for students to work in collaborative teams to solve real-world problems. They work with clients to produce websites, videos, 3D animations and motion graphic. It is a challenging class because the teams often spend too much time working out the concept and don’t leave enough time for production. In the end, the students learn a lot about what it takes to work with others and they also end up with an awesome project for their portfolio.
ACR: What other opportunities do BGSU’s digital arts students take advantage of broaden their horizons?
BM: We have a Computer Art Club (CAC) that is also the Bowling Green ACM SIGGRAPH Student Chapter. They host over 50 events a year ranging from workshops, screenings, open drawing sessions, exhibitions, competitions, field trips to conferences like SIGGRAPH, Ottawa International Animation Festival, Game Developers Conference, Kalamazoo Animation Festival International and many more.
The CAC has an internship listing online and facilitates workshops on how to prepare portfolios, apply for internships and jobs. We also have a professional practices class that all students need to take during their senior year. This class deals with getting ready for industry, graduate school, freelancing or starting their own business.
ACR: What do you personally look forward to when you walk into your classroom?
BM: I look forward to the intellectual challenges that the students provide. I currently have a class that gives me homework. I give a lecture on a CSS3 technique and they want to know more. In class they ask me how they would do a specific type of animation or interactive technique not taught in class (often far beyond the scope of the class). I go home and write lecture notes on that specific technique. Students continually teach me new techniques and visual approaches to a problem. I believe learning environments should be fun and inquisitive. It is much more engaging for me to be both a learner and a teacher.
ACR: And what aspects of BGSU do you enjoy the most?
BM: The thing that I find the most appealing at BGSU is the sense of community. The students go to conferences, films, and festivals together. They host workshops, visiting artists, exhibitions and themed parties on campus. There is a sense of cooperation and collaboration, not competition amongst the
The type of student that would fit in best at BGSU would be one that is serious about their career goals and knows that it takes more than just talent and hard work to succeed. BGSU gives students numerous opportunities to take leadership roles. Students can help other students and get help from other students and faculty. They can network with professional in the field and get involved in widely recognized activities. Essentially if a student wants to be part of a community of learners serious about digital art and animation, Bowling Green State University is the school for them.
ACR: Bonnie, it’s been a pleasure!
BM: Thank you, Bonnie!
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.