Tony Parkin welcomes back 3Dami's free workshops, with organiser Peter Kemp
The first sight that greeted me when I visited the 2014 3Dami summer workshop at UCL (University College London) was a mound of pizza boxes, and a lively group of teenagers wolfing pepperoni and avoiding olives. Lots of laughter and teasing and the usual horseplay. So clearly the workshop had an emphasis on fun and enjoyment alongside the serious challenge of creating digital animations.
But as Peter Kemp and Tom Haines, the event organisers, assured me, this was a reward for the hard work the participants had already put in. And as they settled back into their work groups I was able to see just how much they had achieved in a relatively short period.
Snails slithered along garden paths, babies battled and tube trains swept into stations while all around the room screens showed 3d animations in wire-frame or being coloured or rendered. Hugely impressive, and made more so by the buzz from lively team discussions about what was to come next.
'Exemplifies what digital creativity is all about'
3Dami is a seven-day summer school where groups of students run their own studio and create their own animated short film from scratch. This year's 3Dami Summer School at UCL is staffed by volunteers, and is completely free for UK students aged 14 to 18 (including free food – and it's not just pizza).
Located at the point where art and technology meet, it exemplifies what digital creativity is all about, and offers experiences for students with an interest in both. The participants experience a semi-realistic studio setup, and create their own animated film, in teams, just as a real studio would. Essential attributes are teamwork, the ability to be creative and think on their feet, and some very hard work.
As well as the fun of producing an animated short film, the skills acquired are directly related to the film effects and computer games industries, both of which are booming in the UK. Experience gained will undoubtedly be invaluable if any of these young enthusiasts decide to pursue a course and a career in the industry, which it was clear several were already planning. The 2015 event is also being used as a test bed to research how 3D animation can teach computational thinking.
'I did the path, and rigged the snail'
As the 2014 group worked I managed to talk to one or two of those attending the session without disrupting the workflow. Miranda was one of the girls who made up about a quarter of the participants – although Peter and Tom had been keen to aim for a 50/50 gender balance, which hadn't proved possible that time round. I was surprised to discover that Miranda was only 13, she certainly seemed a couple of years older and fitted into the group of mainly 15 to 16-year-olds without any difficulty. She told me that she was already an enthusiastic coder, being familiar with Python, Greenfoot and HTML.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she had picked this expertise up outside the classroom, largely working on it at home. But she had shown it to her teacher at Townley Grammar School, Bexleyheath, who had been extremely encouraging and offered ideas to help her make progress. Another teacher had mentioned that he worked in Blender, which is an open-source animation tool, so she also tried that and thought it cool, and so wanted to do more.
Then a visitor to the school from UCL mentioned the 3Dami summer school, and she researched it herself and applied. She had really enjoyed working as part of a team, and improving her skills with the Blender 3d software. "I did the path, and rigged the snail," she said proudly as she showed me the team's efforts to date. Her enthusiasm, maturity and commitment were absolutely impressive. As was her snail.
Ashley, a 16-year-old boy in another group, who attends Harris Academy in Crystal Palace, had a similar story to tell, though coming from an arts rather than computer science angle. At 12 he had been excited and interested by the graphics in the computer games he played, and wanted to find out how they were achieved. Again, it was a teacher at school who encouraged his efforts, and told him about Blender, and he now had four years' experience under his belt from working on computer graphics in his bedroom.
Though Ashley was quick to point out that he also had a 'real life', and played guitar in a band, he had spent two out of those four years struggling to get to grips with the challenge of Blender. Then he discovered Andrew Price online. A Blender guru, he made the journey over the next two years far easier for Ashley and as a result his skills had accelerated.
Ashley had been director for his group in the workshop that week, and was proud to have been elected by the group to take on the role. He had a clear vision of what the finished project should be like, and this had been recognised by the group when they elected him director. Another incredibly impressive student who had clearly gained a great deal from the experience.
Equally impressive were Chago and Sam, two alumni from previous 3Dami workshops who had volunteered to return to help mentor the group. Both were now at university, one studying computer science, the other animation, and both felt that the portfolio contributions and experiences from their own 3Dami workshop had been pivotal in helping inspire them to go to university, and in gaining their places. Sam said his portfolio, partly produced at the previous 3Dami event , was hugely important, and included lots of pencil and paper sketches alongside the digital animation materials. "It's much more about how you approach and solve the problems, rather than how you use the technology" he added. Being just a little older than the participants, and clearly cool and successful, made them ideal mentors for this current group.
Open source tools make it accessible to all
Blender is not the only software tool the workshop offers the students a chance to explore in depth. Keeping the focus wherever possible on free and open-source tools, so that all the students can use them outside the course, they use a variety of other software packages to prepare content for Blender. Specifically, Inkscape is the vector graphics tool of choice, the ubiquitous GIMP is used for photo editing, and MyPaint adds realistic media simulation.
Alongside Peter Kemp, education lecturer at Roehampton University, and Tom Haines, a research associate at UCL, co-founders of the 3Dami Workshops, a number of others were on hand observing and assisting. Two researchers were taking advantage of the workshop, observing the students and the way they used the 3D technology, to further their own studies in computational and sociological factors influencing creativity. Kate Oliver, communications manager at UCL's Faculty of Engineering explained that though UCL doesn't actually offer 3D animation courses it has been delighted to help sponsor the workshops as part of its Outreach programme. "It is really important to engage students at an early age to encourage them to think about going on to higher education and to further their work in this area," said Kate.
Red, blue and green teams were all by now entering the final stretch and the work became more frantic. Not everything was quite as they liked, but time was running out, and producing the finished film was more important than achieving perfection. And it was pleasing to see three polished examples of the 3D animators' art emerging from the week-long labours, and joining earlier years' output on the 3Dami site (see links below).
Maybe you know someone who would love a chance to take part in this year's workshops at UCL (July 22-30) and Cardiff (July 29 to August 6). Events are open to any pre-university student aged 14 to 18 on submission of an application portfolio. Both events have full transport, accommodation and food bursaries available. See the website to find out more. 3Dami is supported by the Creative Skillset’s Film Skills Fund, which is funded by the BFI with National Lottery funds, through the Skills Investment Funds.