Author: Imogen Greenhalgh
‘It’s very easy for young people to become consumers of content, constantly checking their social media for what’s new,’ says Brigitta Zics, Associate Professor in Digital Media Production, at University College London, over Zoom. ‘What we want to do here at UCL is turn them into producers, into those who create the content and don’t just consume it. It’s a challenge, because it requires a different type of attention, and attention span. It’s asking them to think in a different kind of way.’
Zics is introducing me to the almost two-hundred-year-old university’s newest degree, BA Media, which welcomed its first intake of undergraduates last autumn. A three-year course, it is, Zics says, new both for UCL and for the wider academic landscape, in which no Russell Group universities have yet offered something similar. What distinguishes it, she explains, is its wide remit, combining theory and practice, and spanning filmmaking, digital games and interactive media.
Still from first year BA Media student game project
‘Essentially, it’s about creating new worlds. We’re bringing together media forms (specifically games and film) which have traditionally been separate, with games taught under design, and film within the context of art. We want to marry the two fields together, informed by immersive media forms which are only just emerging.
While these two key strands – games and filmmaking – each represent a behemoth industry of their own, there are opportunities, Zics says, for practitioners fluent in, or at least informed about, both.
‘Talking generally, people understand how games have drawn inspiration from film, and from the ways films use narrative, but I think it has been less understood how film borrows from games and from gaming technology.’
This, she says, is where innovation is taking place. ‘The experience of media changes with every generation, so we wanted to zoom out, to look at media in its broadest sense, so students start to understand all the different angles.’ While the practice of filmmaking is well established within the academic environment, the teaching and practice of newer and emerging media forms is only nascent, meaning the course is blazing a trail.
No wonder, then, that the course proved popular: for its first intake, more than 800 prospective students applied for only 40 places (in the end, they accepted 70 students, impressed by the talent and demand).
It bodes well for the new School for the Creative and Cultural Industries to which the BA belongs, the first of five new undergraduate degrees to be set up and run by the school, which aims to support the Creative Industries in Britain, with a home in UCL, the new multimillion pound campus in Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
‘The new campus is the biggest expansion for UCL since it was built,’ explains Haidy Geismar, Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the new School for the Creative and Cultural Industries. ‘There’ll be a whole range of departments with a presence there – Engineering, the Bartlett School of Architecture, Life Sciences – and we’ll be joining members of the East Bank partnership, like the V&A, Sadler’s Wells, the BBC. So it’s part of this really exciting cultural and educational district.’
The new facilities allow, Geismar explains, for a new approach to teaching and learning, prohibited until now for practical reasons. ‘While being based in Bloomsbury has all sorts of benefits, we’ve been constrained by the estate and its historic buildings, using rooms that were built 100 years ago, when disciplines were much more about lecturing and seminars. Moving into UCL East means we can push towards practice-led learning, with spaces for making and doing.’
Still from first year BA Media’s film Dreaming by Zishuang Yang
For Zics’s Media students, this means the chance to use a 160-seater surround-sound cinema, specialist recording technology and a dedicated Media Studio, complete with editing and production facilities.
‘The Humanities and Social Sciences have, of course, always had a strong element of practice to them, particularly at UCL, but I don’t think it’s been that visible,’ Geismar goes on. ‘Traditionally, we have had this reputation of being book and lecture-driven. What I think these new spaces allow is for us to show the through-lines that exist, between the creative and critical thinking you develop in our part of the university, and the connections this has to the creative economy, which is such a huge part of the wider UK economy.’
Richard Palmer, the BA Media’s Employer Engagement Co-Ordinator agrees. ‘It’s always been the ambition that this programme will be relevant to industry, with teaching that is outward facing,’ he explains. ‘The idea being, to combine the critical and academic rigour expected of any UCL degree with state-of-the-art professional skills.’ To support this, the course offers a programme of talks and masterclasses led by industry figures and sector partners, with placements for students built in as an integral part of the degree.
This sensitivity to the needs of both Creative Industry employers and students leads to a virtuous circle, in Palmer’s view. ‘Our students gain first-hand experience of the kinds of skills needed in the workplace, and our partners have access to this cohort of brilliant, multi-skilled young people from diverse, international backgrounds, who will bring them fresh eyes and ideas.’
Still from first year BA Media’s film Anna by Corinna Du
It fosters an ethos of collaboration too, which is fundamental, Geismar says, to the wider School for the Creative and Cultural Industries. ‘We want to find participatory and collaborative ways of working, building relationships with community and sector partners with whom we can co-produce and co-create, so that we’re making things together.’
With this ambition and energy behind them, as well as brand new facilities at their fingertips, what is the main challenge UCL’s BA Media students face? ‘I think it will be finding their specialism, the thing that makes them really passionate,’ Zics replies. ‘They have all this choice, all these incredible resources, in this city with so much happening in terms of culture. It’s our job to guide them, to help them find their way through this forest of opportunity.’
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