Sunday, April 12, 2009
“The crying’s not right yet”, warns Hayley, as she presses “Play”. On the video screen, a young girl is sitting hunched up in the corner of a room. The shadow of a man appears through the window. The girl shakes and starts to cry. It’s an animation; not terribly sophisticated, but it works, and the work is all Hayley’s.
I’m in a classroom in an inner-city college where a group of students are showing me their course projects. This is a group of “unteachables”: kids of around 16 who’ve virtually dropped out of conventional education, the product of urban decay, family upheaval, in some cases addiction and abuse. Many are still illiterate and innumerate. The GCSE system has passed them by, but I’m astonished by what they’ve achieved. In just a few weeks they’ve learnt how to make proper “Flash” animations, with music, sound effects and neat little title sequences with their names proudly emblazoned on the front; they’ve planned, storyboarded, designed, filmed and edited – techniques which in the professional world would take scores of trained experts.
The results are pretty dark. One boy shows me a gang of skeletons catching and mugging a little old lady. The film is half finished. “So, does the old lady win in the end, then?”, I ask naively, expecting her to turn into Supergran. “No, she dies”, comes the response. “Perhaps she could turn into a skeleton as well and then get her own back?” I suggest. “No, she just dies”. Not exactly a Hollywood ending. There’s no artifice with these children; a psychologist would have a field day. Unequipped with the filters that sophisticated artists employ to process their feelings, these trampled lives come straight through the screen. Using the power of film to look straight into the soul.
Over the past few months I’ve been travelling round the North’s universities and colleges looking at how we teach our media students. What’s really amazes me is not how good these kids are, but how little I’ve been taught myself. When I joined the television industry, you needed a degree at a top university before you could be considered for a training course. Producers were the ideas people and, although some of us were directors as well, we relied on other people trained in craft skills to operate our cameras, edit our films, produce our animations and so on. Nowadays we’re in the world of what we call “user generated content” (or, YouTube). Our teenagers do the work of whole movie studios and put them straight on the web. Most of us over the age of 30 are left completely in the dark.
Back at Teesside University, where occasionally I appear under the grand title of Visiting Professor of Media, I recount this story to one of my colleagues. How can I have spent a lifetime getting to the top of my profession and not learnt any of the basic media techniques that a group of deprived 16 year olds have perfected? We’ll teach you, he says. Immediately I snap up the offer and list the skills I never learned that are now standard issue to all media students: editing, graphic design, website building, computer game design and, of course, Flash animation. He sets about organising some training for me and any other dinosaurs I care to invite.
Last Friday in Newcastle I had lunch with some of the North East’s top television producers. When I told them about my proposed re-education plan everyone round the table jumped at the chance. The fightback has begun; old grey dogs are learning new tricks; keeping up with the children is our new watchword. Next we’ll be learning how to use the remote control on our televisions. On second thoughts, that might be a step too far.