This morning I am going to pursue two intersecting idea threads. One is the evolution and blending of theater, film, and animation in America and China. The other is the contemporary climate of new technology, the digital revolution, and the evolving face of education.
As an actor and aspiring playwright, Griffith arrived in New York in 1907, when there were some 106 theaters on Broadway, but the arrival of motion pictures changed all of that. Movies began to replace plays and other theatrical entertainment as people’s first choice, and film’s abilities, including its method of presenting realism, transformed the stage, including turning drama inwards, more psychological on one hand or more outward on the other in terms of performance, such as the famed Broadway musicals. Today, 40 theaters remain in the Broadway theater district…but there are quite a few movie theaters as well.
I raise D.W. Griffith, who was also the man who moved filmmaking to Hollywood for its more reliable natural light and weather, because he was a well-known and major influence on the Chinese film industry.
Although the first Chinese theater exclusively devoted to film appeared in Beijing in 1907, as time progressed towards the 1930s, the “western shadow play” was integrated into Chinese variety shows that included acrobatics, traditional opera, and vaudevilles. It would be naïve of us to assume that these various modes of entertainment did not have some effect on one another--everything from martial arts novels and comic books to love stories and live shows played a role in the evolution of this medium.
After 1921, extra capital seeking investment made its way to China, jumpstarting China’s budding film industry in the hands of Chinese filmmakers and businessmen. With no tradition of filmmaking of its own, and with film looked down upon as a lesser art, the Hollywood commercial model was accepted and the film industry was driven by what made economic sense and not as ideologically framed as competing entertainments.
Although the first Chinese short feature was based on an adapted script rather than on opera, Chinese opera has played an important role in the history of Chinese film, not least of all for its influence on shaping the filmmaker’s creative process and modes of expression.
The foundations of theatre rest largely on the notion of suspended belief—As social conventions evolve, so does the need for such prescriptive illusions.
Towards the end of China's first Golden Age of cinema, filmmakers recognizing these relationships began to draw away from productions that recreated these illusions, instead choosing to explore conventions in stylized realism and expressing truth through cinema—sometimes through documentaries and artistic interpretations of current events and issues.
What role did technology play in this evolution? On the one hand, we have the visual themes, the mise-en-scene of theatre, the centrality of an actor’s body, the precise choreography of a movement or orientation of characters on stage, the scenery that suggests a particular time and place beyond the confines of the curtains. On the other, we have the filmmaker, the director, the ability to zoom in and out of a scene and pan across a setting to emphasize a particular thought.
In many ways, limitations on technological development both inside and outside of the film industry in China spurred creative development. While the first films certainly served to document the actuality of local cultures, a history of character driven-theatre gradually evolved into metaphor-laden creative expressions whose unique nature stemmed from the quality of an improvised reality. A specific lexicon for Chinese cinema was born and expanded with the expanding quality of film technology.
Looking back, NYIT also played a key role in the evolution of the film industry, much due to the fact that we’ve kept our eye on technology. Nearly 40 years ago, then NYIT President Alex Schure was interested in making a computer-generated feature length movie, and wanted to use computers to do it. In 1974, he established the Computer Graphics Laboratory at New York Institute of Technology’s Old Westbury campus. It was the most sophisticated studio of its time. The lab attracted both technology experts and artists. Top talent included Lance Williams, Fred Parke, Garland Stern, Ralph Guggenheim, Ed Emshwiller, Alvy Ray Smith and Ed Catmull—all giants today in the history of animation. Many are still leaders in the industry.
A great deal of effort at NYIT went into the development of the first animated film, "The Works," written by Lance Williams. Although never completed, sequences from the work in progress still stand as some of the most astounding animated imagery of the time. The quality of the animation and graphics work being done at NYIT attracted the attention of George Lucas, who was interested in developing a special effects facility at his company, Lucasfilm. He recruited the top talent from NYIT, including Catmull, Smith, and Guggenheim, to start his division, which eventually spun off as Pixar.
Fast-forward to 2012. In today’s technology-fueled, 21st-century world, computer-generated productions no longer replicate but rather define reality across social structures, industries, and academia. As these artistic expressions spread across our globalized society, audiences are not only capable of mirroring art back to its creators but also share it among themselves, thus permeating cultures and subcultures worldwide. The field of media and communications has led a parallel evolution, as the Internet revolutionized how—and how quickly—news is shared around the world. This evolutionary trend has led to a mutual intelligibility that empowers students, faculty, government, and industry across continents and language barriers to create a hyper-reality that facilitates collaboration and idea incubation.
No doubt that during the sessions today and tomorrow, we will have a lot to say about how social media represents a paradigm shift in how we communicate. Low-cost and global, it is a game changer not only in news reporting but it also introduces interactivity that connects people with people, of course, but also businesses with new audiences that help to shape their markets and brands. It has taken the print business and put it in the palm of one’s hand. In America, 35% of the population already has a smart phone.
Television is not going to go away anytime soon, but it is going to move from large screen TVs to handheld devices and become more democratized, with low-budget small producers, even individuals, creating content and micro-channels on the Internet competing with viewers from from big media corporations and programs. Plus we will see a lot more real-time broadcasting and interactive viewer engagement in the evolutionary line of social media. Again…technology, technology, and new technology. Who will create and manage tomorrow’s technology?
Meanwhile, the emerging reality is that the teaching and learning process in higher education today has been turned upside down—we’ve moved from an instructional paradigm to a learning paradigm.
A dominant trend today is the practice of “flipping the classroom,” leaving the lecture at home and focusing class time on forms of active learning, including group projects. A recent survey found that the majority of the professorate is more excited, not fearful, about spending time coaching students rather than lecturing them, and that the “majority of professors is excited about various technology-driven trends in higher education.”
Georgetown’s Randy Bass borrows from Clayton Christensen’s term “disruptive innovation” to propose the notion of “disruptive moments” in teaching today. He argues that some new educational practices are disrupting the way we’ve always done business—and it’s a good thing. Disruptive innovations are products or services that first take root in a simple application at the very bottom of a market, and then, as technology improves, move up until they completely displace more established competitors. In education, practices that are moving from the margins to the center also provide the disruptive moments that help enhance the quality and relevance of the student experience.
The formal curriculum at leading universities must expand to include more experiential learning and social collaborations, both in the classroom and through technology and become more interdisciplinary and cross-cultural.
Today, scarcity of information is no longer an issue. In just 19 years since it was developed, about a third of the world uses the Internet. This is the fastest acceptance of new technology the world has ever experienced, much of it thanks to handheld devices, where leapfrogging technologies have put connectivity and knowledge into the hands of people who may not even have access to life’s basics. It is a sobering thought that some people have easier access to Pandora than to clean drinking water.
Through our global network of campuses and sites, NYIT continues to foster and promote an integrative framework that encourages the convergence of learning technologies and methodologies—among them animation, computer graphics, media, and the arts—across multiple disciplines, cultivating regional community support among governments and businesses, and making use of the latest communication vehicles that empower students to identify and address real-world problems; adapt interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, team-oriented approach to global challenges; and utilize technology in overcoming these challenges.
In New York, computer graphic artists in our motion capture lab worked with NASA scientists at the Kennedy Space Center on the Orion space capsule design project and also worked on project for the National Basketball League here in China a few years ago. A commercial arm of our lab is working with clients such as videogame makers, security firms, and health care providers.
And this brings me to my last point. There already exists, and there increasingly exist, a shortage of managers to run the high-tech auditoriums, theaters, concert halls, event stages, and what we still call movie theaters that blend digital technologies in everything from the sound stage to the box offices to the animations injected into the performances. The challenge ahead, especially for those of us educating the next generation of human capital is not just to create the new media of the future but to develop a sophisticated class of technology savvy managers to run the high-tech venues of the future, including the 300 theaters and concert halls being built in China this very moment. Who is going to be the managers and general managers of these communication centers?
Hopefully, NYIT working with CUC, will deliver those 21st-century leaders and managers.
Pixar may have been created in New York at NYIT, but it was rapidly embraced by both Hollywood and Silicon Valley. We know the future of animation is likely to be anchored in China—in Centers in Beijing and in Wuxi or perhaps Shanghai. Disney knows this, and this past April signed an agreement with an animation arm of China's Ministry of Culture and China's largest Internet company, Tencent Holdings Ltd., to develop China’s animation industry, particularly collaborating on story writing, market research, and developing local talent. But the future will also be anchored in academia, at universities such as NYIT and CUC working together to create new ideas, applications, and technologies and then educating a new generation to use them effectively.
I often use the term "idea incubators" to describe this process. Because, just as modern cinema requires a director, a writer, actors, and other production crew to craft a story that inspires and tugs at our emotions, tomorrow’s innovations will require thought leaders from academia, government, business, and elsewhere.