In this season of media excitement about the BAFTAs and Oscars, it seems reasonable for educators to ask where the next generation of film-makers might come from. Recent government policy in Arts education has certainly begun to take note of the value of film-making for young people, prodded by specialist institutions, in particular the British Film Institute (BFI). The lottery-funded Into Film programme provides opportunities for young people to watch and make films.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the school curriculum, film education and media education are pretty well invisible. They are certainly ranked lower than Art and Music, which are National Curriculum subjects, and even Dance and Drama, embedded respectively within PE and English.
These are topics I address in my inaugural professorial lecture, about to be published by UCL IOE Press. Entitled In Defence of the Media Arts: Screen Education in the Twenty-First Century, it argues that politicians and educators need to take media arts education seriously for three reasons.
Firstly, media art forms such as film, animation, comic strips and videogames are an important part of young people’s cultural lives, and we owe it to them to take them seriously and make space in the curriculum for students to explore them and make their own versions. Although popular culture is now ‘mainstream’ in society (quality newspapers will now regularly review videogames alongside film, theatre and literature), and a big earner for the UK, supported by government tax breaks, when it comes to the curriculum a nervous conservatism sets in. My lecture argues that policy-makers and schools need to be braver, less prejudiced against these cultural forms, and more aware of their artistic merit.
Secondly, I argue that such cultural distinctions are in any case no longer easy to sustain. If we want young people to engage with the great art of the past, we should recognise that, especially in the case of theatre, music, dance and literature, the canonical works of the past are constantly being remade, transformed – ‘re-imagined’, as the industry often puts it. Some examples: the recent Dickensian TV series, imagining the early lives of characters for which Dickens only provides brief details; the Robert Zemeckis animated film of Beowulf, and the subsequent videogame spinoff; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, parodying Jane Austen’s original, now a movie, too.
Education can fruitfully adopt this process of adaptation and transformation, irreverently adapting canonical works of art through popular cultural media, in order to explore their meanings and structures, and to make new meanings through creative media production. Two recent examples in my own research, discussed in the lecture, are Playing Shakespeare and Playing Beowulf. The first of these, a collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe, developed a game-authoring software tool for young people to make their own videogames of Macbeth. When they showed their games to an audience at the Globe, the general consensus was that they had intelligently and innovatively adapted Shakespeare’s play as a videogame murder narrative. The Beowulf project, in collaboration with the British Library, similarly created a tool to make games of Beowulf, using images from the manuscript, voice acting by Anglo-Saxon scholars at UCL, and the students’ own ideas about fantasy, monsters and archaic cultures, often inspired by current mediaevalist themes in popular culture such as Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings.
Finally, and thirdly, I argue that it is increasingly difficult to separate out individual art-forms in today’s media landscape. Media forms are richly multimodal: films, animations and games incorporate visual design, language, dramatic performance (real or virtual), music and other forms of communication. Another research project, making machinima films (animations emerging from game culture) with 11 year-olds in Cambridge, involved English, Media, Music and IT teachers, coming together to help the children combine these different modes and their artistic characteristics in their films.
To suggest that this work is purely vocational, preparing the next generation of workers in the media industries, is too narrow a reason. But without creative work of this kind, connecting both with past culture and with contemporary popular media, the future landscape of the media arts will surely be impoverished.
In Defence of the Media Arts: Screen Education in the Twenty-First Century is available from UCL IOE Press
Caption: Screen shot from Macbeth videogame design by two 13-year-old girls