UAB Students Get Animated and Interactive
By Caperton Gillett
Digital graphics and animation used to be known as “new media” back when they really were new. Today they appear on screens of every size under the name of “time-based media,” reflecting the fact that these works have a beginning and an end and often involve input from the viewer.
UAB’s time-based media program lives in the Department of Art and Art History, where it harnesses technology to create a new kind of fine art. A key focus is animation—both hand-drawn and 3D—but that’s not the only emphasis, says Christopher Lowther, M.F.A., assistant professor of time-based media.
The students “are very engaged in contemporary practice,” he says. “We’re doing investigations in interactivity using sensors and circuit boards.” The 3D animation even has a virtual-reality component—something that other programs often don’t have, Lowther says.
UAB’s nationally recognized time-based media program consists of seven courses: introductory, intermediate, and advanced time-based media; 3D computer modeling; 3D computer animation; Emerging Technologies; and a capstone seminar. To learn more, visit http://www.uab.edu/art/programs_timebased.php
From Flipbooks to 3D
Lowther goes back in time to teach the basics of the field, beginning with what he calls “pre-cinematic devices”—frame-by-frame animation using flipbooks and zoetropes—and progressing through more traditional 2D animation and stop-frame animation in the style of movies like Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and current Oscar nominees Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, and The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Other courses concentrate on object-based art; in them, students have used a preprogrammed circuit board called a MaKey MaKey to connect with a computer and make their artwork interactive. The technology grows more advanced from there. In fact, Lowther’s 3D computer modeling course brings the art out of the computer and into the real world, where students can interact with their objects in the School of Engineering’s VisCube, a fully immersive 3D multiscreen display; print them out on the art department’s 3D printer; or create entire virtual-reality environments.
The collaboration with the School of Engineering and a variety of departments within the College of Arts and Sciences has helped the time-based media program to stand out nationally. In fact, the Web site Animation Career Review ranked it among the top programs in the South, citing its wide variety of visual-arts offerings and active faculty members and its exceptional facilities to help prepare students for a future in animation.
“The program is unique because of the dialogue that’s happening with other departments,” Lowther says. “It’s reflective of the efforts of the College of Arts and Sciences to have more people from different disciplines interacting with one another. It gives students opportunities that they might not otherwise have.”
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Life-like Hearts—and Zombies
That interdisciplinary education could lead to rapid career success in the field of time-based media, Lowther says. He says that two students in his program are combining medicine and art, creating active and interactive illustrations and visualizations. “Before, it might have been pen and markers and paint, but now, you can animate,” he says. “You can illustrate the digestive tract going through a 24-hour process and do it in 3D, for example. Students are getting their art side and a more pragmatic side.”
Senior Kathryn Robinson has developed an animated 3D model of a viral attack on a blood vessel. “I’ve always been intrigued with art, and it’s been a hobby of mine since I was a little girl,” Robinson says. “Medicine was my first choice as a career path. When I discovered that I could combine both, I knew I’d found the career of my dreams.” After college, Robinson plans to become a scientific illustrator—one with an impressive, unusual skill set. “Seeing my design in the VisCube was amazing, and it encouraged me to create more interactive models,” she says. “This course has made me more valuable after graduation, thanks to my new animating skills.”
Junior Josh Davenport, meanwhile, looks forward to a career in animation and already works with UAB’s Enabling Technology Laboratory, but his current project is a little more tangible: He and his classmates are using the MaKey MaKey to create a zombie-themed version of the game “Operation.” Touching the sides of the game while trying to extract an organ triggers a scene of a zombie attack.
The same techniques, adapted for less gruesome purposes, could be used to create “a game or art installation where people had to interact with each other physically to reach an outcome,” Davenport says. “Technology has a way of connecting us digitally while further separating us physically, and I think the MaKey could be a great tool for bringing people together,” he explains.
Lowther encourages his students to “create their own opportunities,” he says. Early on in their classes, students learn about programs like Kickstarter to help fund projects and about ways to find real-world applications for their art. “I don’t just focus on the concrete ways of doing things and using computer programs. We’re talking about ideas—innovative ideas,” Lowther says. “The new landscape we’re in requires more complex answers, because the problems are more complex. I think part of the answer is technology—and being innovative. You’re going to have to do something different. You’re going to have to think about making your own opportunities. And that’s kind of exciting.”