Located in the heart of Beantown, Emerson College’s history as a leading northeastern private institution spans more than a century. Its BA and BFA in Animation & Motion Media programs encompass many areas including computer and film animation, visual effects, compositing and motion graphics. Indeed, one of the best aspects of the program at Emerson is its integrated approach to the craft where students utilize a variety of mediums to test the bounds.
Much like the program itself, Professor of Computer Animation John “Craig” Freeman’s career spans many different forms and mediums. Both a working artist and an educator, Freeman uses emergent digital technologies to produce large scale public installations that are frequently exhibited internationally. We spoke with Freeman for our latest spotlight Q&A to gain a better sense of Emerson’s Animation program. We also picked his brain on the future technologies that shape what, and how, his students learn today. (This interview, done via Skype, has been edited for length & clarity).
ACR: Craig, thanks for participating in our latest Q&A. To start, tell us a little bit about your background in the digital arts.
JCF: I have a traditional visual arts background, doing my undergraduate work at University of California at San Diego. They had a conceptual art program and I studied art as idea and theory- that was in the years prior to computers emerging as an academic discipline. I began an inquiry into notions of alternative forms of art and completed my MFA at the University of Colorado Boulder. I then started looking at uses of emerging technologies and how they might transform art practices and I became a practitioner of public political art with emerging technology.
ACR: How did you find yourself teaching, eventually becoming a Professor of Computer Animation at Emerson?
JCF: The work I do is a challenge to commodity culture; I deliberately make things that aren’t sellable. Teaching has allowed me to make a living while being committed to helping young people develop their own creative voices. I became an adjunct professor in San Diego and then I landed my first (assistant professor) position at the University of Florida. Eventually I came up to Massachusetts to run a digital art program at UMass Lowell before transitioning here to Emerson to help develop their then-fledgling computer animation program ten years ago.
ACR: Emerson’s BA and BFA in Animation & Motion Media takes an integrated approach, much like your own work which has encompassed a variety of mediums, doesn’t it?
JCF: Yes. At Emerson, we pride ourselves on taking a convergent approach to media. The practitioners of the future need to be flexible in a broad spectrum of media. We’re interested in positioning our students in the future trajectories of media and where they’re going.
ACR: Today’s college students have been interacting with computers and software for all their lives. How does this affect how you teach or they learn?
JCF: They are prepared differently in a way that makes sense in our time. They are coming into institutions with a different cognition than they did previously. There are good points to having students who are digital natives and have grown up in this realm. Many of the skills they need to negotiate they pick up through their entertainment experiences in movies, video games, social networking. We need to adapt to these changes as institutions, accordingly.
ACR: Digital artists must meet the technical and artistic challenges of emerging technologies. Is this a monumental teaching task?
JCF: It’s an excellent question and this is an area where Emerson is uniquely positioned. We aren’t a traditional art school, nor are we an engineering school. Instead, we cast our gaze forward and focus on emergent forms of the future that will include gaming and computer animation. It puts us in a position where we can offer opportunity for both creativity and rigorous technological training because they will require both sets of skills in their careers.
ACR: Speaking of emerging technologies, you have spent years working on virtual and augmented reality installations. To the uninitiated, many of the applications seem to be straight out of the pages of a William Gibson novel. Where do you think it’s all heading in the near future?
JCF: It absolutely is like a Gibson novel. Augmented reality is the democratization of virtual reality- it allows many more people to experience it without the great expense that building virtual environments- and participating in them- requires. If we understand the relationship of virtual reality to augmented reality, then we need to start building this augmented world. As an example of an augmented application, it may appear that you’re in a video game when you’re really just walking down the street.
New media is constantly transforming and as practitioners there are digital skills that need to be developed and anticipated. One is content migration that sees its equation in social networks. Communities on the Internet have learned to migrate as needed, such as happened when people went from MySpace to Facebook. And they’ll move to whatever might be next in the future. That migration of people has a counterpart in migration of content. With my work, I migrated my virtual work into Second Life and I’m now migrating that content into augmented reality applications to anticipate the next evolution of technology.
ACR: How does that trajectory of media evolution impact what you teach your students?
JCF: You want to draw students in by their interests but challenge them early on in the broader notion of being digital natives. They will play a special role in creating original contributions to emerging forms that will coincide with new technologies. Much like when the printing press emerged, they only printed bibles for a time- someone had to invent the form of the novel. Technology and content go hand-in-hand.
I have a commitment to the playful forms of gaming and entertainment and teach accordingly. Those forms will actually become the structures of knowledge dissemination in the future. People will access our collective knowledge base in an immersive, playful space. Video games are merely charting the course.
ACR: Is it difficult to stay on top of the technological curve with regard to the latest software and direction of emerging technology?
JCF: Emerson is committed to staying up to date with the new technologies so I rarely have a problem getting students access to hardware and software. The harder part is maintaining a level of expertise. I challenge myself in my teaching to stay abreast on emerging technologies, so it’s a given that I study new technologies so that my artistic practices compliment my teaching.
Institutionally speaking, the predominance of classroom teaching is starting to wane and we’re seeing a move to project based experimental learning with a focus on hands-on, global experience. We have, like many other institutions, study abroad opportunities. But I’ve been developing collaboration abroad projects at Emerson where teams of students are brought together from around the world, which is the direction we’re heading towards.
ACR: Are there past students of yours that have made an impression on you with the work they’re doing in their careers today?
JCF: We have so many great examples of graduates who have gone on to do great things in their careers here at Emerson. But anecdotally, one of my first students became quite a respected artist in the realm of located media and performance art. He eventually became an associate professor and recently invited me to talk to his own students. Some of those students may well invite him to speak in their classrooms. That was an instance where everything came full circle in the continuum… it was great.
ACR: Craig, thanks for your insight into Emerson’s animation program and your own work. It’s been a pleasure.
JCF: Thank you, Bonnie!
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.