Is it really four years since I added a post here? I find it hard to believe that, but it’s certainly true to say that there have been a busy few years in-between posts.

Since my last post, we’ve launched an undergraduate degree programme, had our first batch of graduates, and seen a whole bunch of Star Wars universe films that I’ve not even commented on.

To say I’m proud of that first batch of UG Escapees would be a massive understatement. I can’t claim a great deal of credit for what they achieved as I merely stood back and tried not to get in the way. I knew it would all work out as they were talented, passionate and in the hands of some expert tutors, but there were some bumps along the road that’s for sure. How could there not be when not only was this a new degree programme, but it was like no other degree programme in the UK? But the most important part is that they all grew massively during their time with us. And so the students will become masters. Job done.

But back to now, and there is the whole COVID-19 pandemic, which is scary stuff, especially for anyone who has watched the Walking Dead (or even more scarily, read the comics). Why are people watching stuff like Contagion and playing Pandemic? Is it not a bit too real at the moment?

Talking of comics (or if you want to try and sound more grown up, ‘graphic novels’), they seem to be the inspiration for most interesting new media these days. Let’s set aside the plethora of Marvel and DC media being churned out (much as I love it), and let’s look either side of the crowded dual carriageway to the side roads of Locke and Key (good fun), Umbrella Academy (brilliant, although I may have been influenced by my Dark Horse trainers) and October Faction (not the finest TBH). I  may be biased, but there’s more originality there than in your mainstream costume drama or soap opera.

Umbrella Academy
Dark Horse’s Umbrella Academy was always ripe for a Netflix adaptation

But I digress. I  have really been inspired to wake this dead blog by the recent unprecedented events that have led to us all at the very least been semi-imprisoned in our homes and at the worst losing someone close to us.  We are all living in a crazy world that is part post-apocalyptic hell in which within in days Mad Max will be hunting us down for that last gallon of diesel (let’s face it, he won’t find any petrol for that Chrysler V8) and part a very British slide into anarchy in which Boris politely expires and hands the country over to Dominic Cummings and his pack of rabid attack dogs. I think Bowie predicted it all nicely.

But in these times I have been inspired. Inspired by how quickly people have adapted. Inspired by the dedication on key workers putting themselves and their families at risk by continuing to keep essential services running. And inspired by my friends and colleagues who have changed to the new world in which a hug and shake of the hands has been replaced by an emoji and a video-concerned smile.

What’s also been interesting is the speed that our students have adapted to the new normal of online comms. It should be no surprise that a generation already living in the always-connected, on-demand world of Discord and Twitch have adapted with relative ease to this enforced physical isolation, even though I know they are voracious social animals that joined us because of our high numbers of contact hours in a studio environment. I’m adapting more slowly to existing more online than in real life, now I’m watching highly paid football players playing FIFA 20 and beautifully edited Gran Turismo battles in place of live sport. I know many of you knew it all already, but sport is dead, long live eSports.

Gran Turismo – more exciting than real motorsport

And on that note, I’ll sign off, looking forward to another day of video conferences, messenger chats and phone calls whilst trying to school two young children. I think I needed to write something longer than the usual chat message or email to prove that I could still string together a few ideas coherent piece. Nobody will read it, but I feel better for it. Let’s see if it’s four years before the next instalment. Au revoir.

VR: is it any surprise that it’s all about content?

I don’t think anyone will be shocked about the main outcomes of a recent survey carried out by Vicon: the two main barriers to widespread adoption are perceived to be cost and high quality content. This hasn’t really changed since the last VR explosion over a decade ago.

In simple terms, these two criteria are achievable. Affordable tech is just around the corner from Sony, HTC etc, and an even lower entry barrier exists in the use of current high end phones plus Google Cardboard. The visual quality of the content even on these low-end platforms blows the old VR experiences out of the water. But this over-simplifies the situation.

First off, affordability is not the only factor regarding the hardware is comfort/ease of use. Do people want to be hooked up to some PC/set-top box/console through a cumbersome umbilical? Will they remember to ensure their wireless version is charged, and will their WiFi/Bluetooth hold up reliably (especially if the whole family are using it)?

Secondly, high quality of course doesn’t just apply to the visual fidelity, how many games have made the mistake of thinking great graphics = commercial success? Yes we can push hi-res images into your eyes in stereo at framerates that won’t make you feel ill, but what are the pictures of? We we want to engage with it, and for how long?

People are getting wary of the hype. We were sold stereo 3D as the next revolution in linear media (for the umpteenth time), and yes, the blockbuster films can still fill cinemas, but they may well do that anyway. Where’s all the great content in my living room?

I sat there, excitedly awaiting the BBC’s first broadcast in 3D from Wimbledon, which was a perfect example of a “what’s the point” moment: unless the ball is going to hit you in the face, tennis in 3D adds little to tennis in 2D. Likewise the Olympics, is it really worth the hassle to watch the 100 metre final in 3D?  Other TV shows were more impressive, such as the Strictly final and Dr Who special, because there’s more control and staging that you can do to make the most of the stereo effect.  Hardly surprising that BBC pulled the plug on the experiment. I wonder how many 3D glasses are now sitting neglected in the corner of living rooms around the world?

So as ever, content is king. We need engaging, compelling content to go to the trouble of popping on that headset or pressing that cardboard to our face. And it’s coming.

Was any Star Wars fan at SIGGRAPH last year not excited by the work at ILM’s XLab? Being able to wander around the Star Wars universe while the story unfolds, seeing different aspects of the story or moving the camera to watch from a different angle is FUN. Being chased by aliens in the The Mill/Google ATAP ‘Help’ is FUN.  Playing Minecraft on an Oculus Rift is FUN!

So whilst the survey tells us some truths about what the future of VR needs, they’re not new nor are they a shock. What is important is that this time, there’s a much greater chance of getting this right. The pieces are all there, we just need to put them together in the right way.

Ashes to ashes…

I blame Star Wars for getting me into Bowie.

When I was just getting into music, the late seventies/early eighties, I got drawn in by the synth-pop that was emerging. The first single I bought was Are ‘friends’ electric? by Tubeway Army. The original release of Star Wars had ignited my love of Sci-Fi , and the futuristic sound of Numan and the other bands at the time was an obvious entry into the world of music.

My older brother was living with us at the time, and when I played my first Tubeway Army 7″ single on my mum’s old record player he said “It’s good, but sounds just like Bowie”.

I was devastated. Who was this ‘Bowie’ that my bother (clearly mistakenly) thought Numan had pilfered from? How could anybody prior to my generation have invented anything so original?

“Listen to this” said my brother, and put on the double live album Stage. I sat dumbstruck. WTF?!?! Not only is it better than the stuff now, it sounded fresher.

I spent the next month secretly working my way through my bother’s substantial Bowie collection, probably wearing out his copies of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, Young Americans… (sorry bruv)! When he moved out I had to buy them all for myself, tsk!

Then Bowie released Ashes to Ashes, and out-new romantic’ed all the bright young things, and that was that. He was the king.

Was everything he did great? No. Was he always original? Hell no, and he’d be the first to acknowledge his influences. But has anyone had such an impact on music and popular culture over such a long period? I don’t think so. My all time favourite tracks/albums are dominated by his own work and by songs by other artists that you can hear his influence on.

We’ve lost a true great, but the world is a better place for him sharing his talent with us.

Thanks David.

A recipe for innovative degree programmes: the great creative bake off

Over 12 years experience of delivering the specialist skills that the creative industries want.
A handful of professionals at the forefront of their fields.
Some students who know what it is like to be part of the learning process.
Buckets full of a well-established model for developing the craft skills for successful careers.
A carefully measured portion of studio-based learning theory.
Essence of critical thinking and reflective practice.
A large bag of ideas.

Blend all the ingredients in a suitable space with some academic rigor at room temperature.
Mix in some design thinking and leave to develop, constantly stirring to ensure the theory and practice don’t become irrevocably separated.
Test the mixture regularly to ensure that it has the right combination of knowledge, skills, theory and practice, adjusting the mixture accordingly.
Separate into small manageable portions and leave to prove.
Once the portions have risen to their potential, place the entire batch in a validation oven at a high temperature with a top 20 university.
After several hours, remove and voila:
Three deliciously innovative integrated masters programmes!
BA/MArt The Art of Visual Effects
BA/MArt The Art of Computer Animation
BA/MArt The Art of Video Games

Mary and Paul would be proud. Not a soggy anything in sight!

That was easy, what’s next?

Spending the day talking to VFX, animation and game enthusiasts: What could be better?!


Last Friday we had another of our open days for potential applicants to our VFX, animation and game degree programmes. It was a busy day, and this time we had our Oculus Rift and a workstation set up so people could try that out and play with some of the software they’ll be using if they come on our programmes.

It’s always good to speak to people who are starting out on the road to a career in the creative industries, and the enthusiasm and depth to which they’ve started developing their skills already is amazing. I wish I’d been that focussed at that age!

Having our new head of animation along, Alex Williams, was great too, especially for those specifically interested in the animation degree. I become a proper fan-boy when he says things like “when I worked on the Lion King..”, working alongside Alex and the rest of the tutors at Escape Studios is a real treat and they bring so much to the courses. I wonder if I should get him to autograph my DVD of Iron Giant (or even better the new Blu Ray when it arrives, it’s one of my fave films), or would that be unprofessional!?

Follow Alex’s blog for interesting tips, especially what to do for your portfolio. And if the games are more your thing, follow our games blog from Simon Fenton.

If you couldn’t make it along to the open day, there’s details of future ones on the website, so come along and find out more, including details of our ‘Experience Day’ which gives a real flavour of how we work with students. Whatever you decide, talking about the games, animation and VFX with like-minded people is always fun.

SIGGRAPH 2015: VR, dinosaurs, hypercubes and cardboard boxes

It’s been a while since I’ve been to SIGGRAPH, so it was great to get back to it last month. As ever the sheer scale of it is somewhat overwhelming, and certainly means that even with a trio of eager Escapees, we were never going to get to everything that we wanted to.

Arriving slightly jet-lagged on Sunday afternoon, it was straight off to the convention centre to register and attend the first session: the technical papers fast forward.

For those of you who haven’t been to this, this is where the authors of the 154 (how many!?) technical papers have that chance to ‘sell’ their papers in 30 seconds. This is great fun, both to see how they do this and to see the variety of styles, from very dry statements of their paper’s contribution through to hip-hop backed, costumed performances. What struck me from this was the sheer diversity of the papers, but also that a lot seems to be very incremental and there didn’t seem to be many ‘eureka’ breakthroughs this year. I may of course be very wrong…time will tell.

So if the technical stream was worthy but uninspiring, what were the highlights?


Has anyone avoided the VR hype in the last year or so? Well done if you have. There was definitely a theme here, both in terms of ‘look at me’ type shouting and ‘what should we do with this?’ discussions. It was great to hear from those working at the forefront (The Mill, xRez, New Deal) in an insightful session on the trials and tribulations of putting together a mix of video and CG in an engaging experience

This was interesting to contrast with the panel with those who were at the last VR ‘Renaissance’ (sharing memories of the queues for the CAVE at SIGGRAPH92). Whilst as many people pointed out, VR has never gone away, it’s just not been in the public eye for the last 20 years, there was a general feeling that it would find its place in the mainstream now due to a mix of major investment, step changes in visual fidelity and the low entry price point for consumers. We shall see, but certainly the demo from ILM’s Xlab looked mighty fine. Or am I just excited by the forthcoming Star Wars film?


Talking of ILM…my next ‘highlight’ (OK, highlights as it was split over two sessions) was the ILM presentations.

To hear how it all began 40 years ago and where they are today, and to see stills from productions spanning that time was fascinating. To hear Dennis Muren saying that he read the CG ‘bible’ Foley & Van Dam when he was trying to get to grips with CG was a nice touch as that was my first graphics text book that I was sent by my supervisor to read as preparation for my doctorate. Am I too much of a geek if I say I’ve a signed copy?!

Seeing the stills from the very beginning brought home how well these stand up against modern effects today, and the continued use of miniatures alongside CG in modern productions such as Interstellar and of course the forthcoming Episode 7 really make it all seem so much more real on the screen. And hearing that somewhere there are 70mm prints of the Empire Strikes Back with some temporary FX shots instead of the finished renders is amazing, has anyone checked ebay lately?

What I hadn’t realised was how much mo-cap was used for the dinosaurs in Jurrasic World. It makes sense for the ‘raptors, with their size and interaction with the human actors making them seem more suited to being driven by a mo-cap performance. But for the t-rex and inodminus rex? I wouldn’t have guessed. The auditions that they had to see how well people could ‘walk like a dinosaur’ (was I the only one thinking “boom boom acka lacka lacka boom” in my head?) were quite amusing, but I have to say the final performances were pretty convincing, albeit with some hilarious ‘out takes’ when they took a break but the capture rolled on…


Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the wormhole…

Is there any more we can hear about the wonderful effects in Interstellar? Yep. It was great to see Oliver James, Kip Thorne, Paul Franklin and Eugènie von Tunzelmann on stage together. Hearing about the lengths that they went to for a realistic rendering of the black hole was fascinating again, although I’d had the pleasure of catching some of the detail from James at Beergraph in London earlier this year. What caught my attention this time was the discussion of the tesseract: just how do you visualise 4D and 5D in our boring old 3D world, and then project it on a 2D screen? I’ve been fascinated with hypercubes since I was at school, but maybe not to the level of von Tunzelmann whose obsession runs to writing hypercube renderers for fun and having a tattoo of a hypercube on her arm. I guess that’s the dedication it takes to work on an Oscar winning film…

Cardboard boxes

All the tech. All the shiny new toys, software and kit. And my favourite thing of all this year was a load of cardboard boxes. That’s not entirely fair of course. It was actually some cardboard plus a load of tech. Basically it was a live ‘make your own’ video game but with added physical cut-and-paste with the wonderful State of Play. I loved Lume and Lumino City, and bringing that aesthetic to a live workshop was a great idea. I can’t wait to see what they do next!