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Ringling school's most excellent adventure.

Guess what Sarasota art school is leading the country in the exciting new field of computer animation?

The Ringling School of Art and Design turned 62 this year, but it's got the energy and drive of a hungry young kid. Named as the most "up-and-coming" art school in the country in both 1991 and 1992 by U.S. News and World Report, the school is launching a bold initiative to become an arts school for the 21st century. Convinced that a revolution in technology will soon change the way we process and communicate information, the administration has spent the past few years building the most sophisticated undergraduate program in the country in what many believe will be the medium of the next century: computer animation.

Some background. First, understand that one day soon, your TV set will be replaced by a new high-definition machine run by digital signals rather than the present "analog" video signals. Your new machine will combine certain features of television set, computer and video game machine, and it will be the centerpiece of your life, even more than the old telly is today. It will still be the prime source of news and entertainment for you and your family, but it will do much more than inform and entertain. It will educate you, communicate with you and encourage your direct participation in a new realm of media space. Instead of being a "dumb" terminal like a TV set, which just relays programs initiated somewhere else, it will be a "smart" terminal with a great many features, inviting a high level of human interaction. Because there will be more information on the screen, you will probably sit closer to it than you do now, with joysticks, mice and keyboards at hand. It is coming; believe it.

The only problem is, although we have the tools and the delivery system, no one knows just what kind of programming the system will use. Whoever develops interactive programming that succeeds with large audiences will be in a position analogous to the people who built the early film and television industries. They will shape the way we communicate and are entertained for years to come. That's what Ringling School wants to do.

"There is a window of opportunity for us to take a leadership role in the communications industry," says Frank Countryman, executive vice president of the school and vice president for institutional advancement. Half-joking, Dr. Arland Christ-Janer, president of the school, adds, "Sometimes we're not sure just where we are going, but neither is anyone else."

They may not be sure where they're going, but in their effort to get there, Ringling has built one of the most sophisticated computer animation and multi-media laboratories in the South. At the heart of it is the computer graphics department.

Ringling's commitment to computer graphics began as a vision of Peter Roberts, an instructor in graphic arts. Dr. Arland Christ-Janer tells the story this way: "When I was appointed president in 1984, Pete Roberts came to see me and started talking about the potential of the computer as an instrument that would assist artists...what struck me was that he said Ringling had an obligation to train students who could use this technology. He was persuasive. I bought in."

Roberts devised a curriculum and established a department of computer design at the school, starting with Amigas and IBM computers, then acquiring Macintoshes as they became standard in the graphics art industry.

In 1987, the department changed its name to the computer graphics department and began concentrating on graphics for television. In recent years, with the development of computer animation software, the emphasis has been on moving images generated by computer. Here's why.

Marshall McLuhan pointed out that new media do the job of old media, but they do it better. Computers in the paper graphics arts have effectively replaced the cut-and-paste techniques of old. Typesetting will be a hazy memory by the end of next week. Much of today's print advertising and page layouts have never existed anywhere except first in an artist's imagination and then as electrons on a screen, appearing on paper only in their final form.

But this raises some questions: Why bother with paper at all, why not just leave those electrons on the screen and deliver them that way? And why try to replicate static images on computer screens when the same -- not the same, better -- and more information can be presented by utilizing the full range of digital possibilities? These possibilities include text, of course, and still images, just like a newspaper, magazine or book, but they also include full-motion images as well, both mediated images from "the real world" and animated images and illustrations produced by artists. And not only that: The possibilities include the ability of the viewer to interact with the program material in a number of interesting and useful ways, much like the way people now interact with Nintendo video games, but with a different, more serious purpose. The name for this new kind of communication is interactive multi-media.

The fact is, viewers are already interacting with television and radio. The advent of the remote control gave viewers the awesome power to change channels in the blink of an eye, to squelch commercials at the press of a button, to raise and lower volume at will, without leaving the couch. Newer remotes enable one to watch separate channels in windows on the same screen. But there's more: The phenomenal popularity of call-in television shows like "Larry King Live," and participation programs such as Donahue and even "America's Funniest Home Videos," points to a strong desire on the part of many to participate in television.

Animation is the heart of multimedia. Effective, interesting, engaging multimedia programs will require total command of the moving image. This means more than taking pictures, it means making pictures, and that means digital animation. Digital animation is difficult and only beginning to be understood. And it is in this area that Ringling has taken the most risk. Because the entire computer graphics department is now dedicated to the mastery of the animated moving image, and the resources necessary to do this are immense. Grants from Wavefront, Silicon Graphics, Apple and IBM have helped.

Total computer animation is a complex process. Not only does it require extremely expensive work stations with huge amounts of computer memory, but the necessary process of modeling three-dimensional images on the screen so that they can be viewed from any angle is mentally demanding, time-consuming and requires precise geometric knowledge. The learning curve on computer animation is, as they say, steep.

A few years ago the only place to learn the basics of computer animation was Ohio State, which had an animation lab for graduate students under the direction of Charles Csuri, a video animation pioneer and founder of Cranston/Csuri Productions. When Ringling began looking for the right person to take over the department when Peter Roberts retired last year, Ohio State graduate Maria Palazzi was their choice. After leaving Ohio State, Palazzi became Cranston/Csuri's senior animator and technical director for a time, then moved on to become the director of the computer animation lab at Rutgers. She has won many awards.

At first glance, Palazzi seems young for the job, but watching her crisply lead a class of advanced students through their paces without missing a beat or referring to notes is an impressive spectacle. Her classroom is a row of work stations with brightly lit computer screens. Her students have their heads down, working out a classical problem of computer animation, trying to master the complexities of making a saltshaker fall over on a table in hyperspace. Sighs and groans of exasperation punctuate the early-morning gloom. Oddly shaped saltshakers whirl around on wire-frame tabletops. Some fall down OK, some don't quite convince. Palazzi moves from work station to work station, offering advice and encouragement.

She is assisted by two other Ohio State graduates, Joan Staveley, another award-winning animator who sees computer animation as a medium for fine art as well as for commercial applications, and Ed Cheetham, who came to Ringling from Universal Studios in Orlando. Staveley recently won the important Prix Ars Electronics Golden Nica award for Broken Heart, a terrifying work challenging the viewer's sense of scale and security, featuring an interior space invaded through the wall by aggressive table forks.

As of this moment, Ringling School certainly dominates the field of teaching computer animation and computer graphics. Few other schools compete. Even the mighty Rhode Island School of Design, the nation's premier art school, has not come anywhere close to making the kind of commitment that Ringling has in this field. Ringling's is an undergraduate program, and the advantage of this is that the students have access to the equipment for four years instead of the one or two that graduate programs offer. This gives them an opportunity to reach a high level of mastery.

George Pierson is the creative director at Home Box Office's Creative Services in New York. He's also a Ringling graduate, class of '66, and a Ringling trustee.

According to Pierson, Ringling's leadership position will certainly be challenged by other schools. But, he says, "One of the advantages that Ringling has is its location. Being in a bellwether state like Florida, being so near Orlando, which may be the Los Angeles of the future, Ringling is in a very strong position."

Ringling has another advantage, the Ringling Multimedia Corporation. It's a profitmaking arm directed by Frank Countryman, "The point man in our endeavors with corporate relationships," says Dr. Christ-Janer. Corporate relationships are slated to play a big role at Ringling.

As the school has become more involved with multimedia and animation, it has also become involved with the industries that use it. Ringling Multimedia will be both a production and teaching facility, employing advanced students and faculty to complete production jobs and develop a pedagogy for teaching computer graphics in the industry. The Ringling Multimedia Corporation is the school's business interface with such giants as IBM, Walt Disney Animation Florida, Silicon Graphics, and Wavefront Technologies, all of whom seem to have a more than casual interest in Ringling's success. Disney Animation eagerly takes Ringling students into their own apprenticeship program.

Their interest is not hard to understand. Dr. Thomas Linehan, a computer graphics expert who has been a consultant to Ringling over the years, is highly impressed with Ringling's computer graphics program and calls it, "the most resource-rich computer imaging program for undergraduates in the world." He also notes that "they have a well-trained faculty who have a record of quality performance themselves...and their curriculum has real depth to it."

It sounds like a formula for certain success. "But," says Dr. Linehan, "the ultimate multimedia product is still waiting on mastery of the tools. The students at Ringling have a chance, because it is a four-year program, to go beyond the initial attempt. When the medium begins to become accessible to a larger number of people is when we can expect to see some powerful work."

Pierson of HBO agrees. "At Ringling, you have a bunch of kids, a bunch of time, and a bunch of equipment. It won't be long until some fantastic product emerges."

Davidson Gigliotti writes about art, technology and civic issues for SARASOTA and other publications.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Clubhouse Publishing, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Ringling School of Art and Design
Author:Gigliotti, Davidson
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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