Interview With Elizabeth Daley, Dean, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California

Dean-Daley-3x4I conducted an interview with Elizabeth Daley, Dean of the School of Cinematic Arts at USC who sits with me on a committee for the World Economic Forum called the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Media. We’ve had some interesting conversations about the world of media, how it’s changing and what we might expect in the near future. Read on to hear Elizabeth’s thoughts on the future of media.

So tell us, from the world of the media arts, what’s the ‘next big thing’?

Virtual production (think Avatar and Gravity); immersive media (3D, IMAX and head-mounted displays); and transmedia (i.e. distribution on multiple platforms and multiple products created from the same assets for different platforms) are all dramatically impacting the way we make and distribute media and even more importantly what we make. We are constantly seeing media and entertainment experiences that are pervasive and that link the virtual and physical worlds.

How does this change what you’re teaching students?

Students here at SCA are encouraged to learn as much as they can about all the newest forms and techniques as well as traditional media. For example Visual Effects are now an integral part of the media vocabulary just as much as cinematography and editing. All students need to be aware of if not fluent in games and interactive and mobile media, as well as television and film. Our media universe is expanding, and to have a meaningful career one can’t be narrowly trained.

Recently we had a conversation about fostering creativity, and you had some great insights from the School of Cinematic Arts at USC.  What are the most important elements or drivers for fostering creativity?

I think to foster creativity one needs to create an environment that encourages collaboration, risk taking and play. All children are creative until it is conditioned out of them. So we try to provide a world where students can learn from the most creative people in our field and from each other. We want the School to provide a safe place for exploration and dreams while teaching the hard core skills needed to realize one’s ideas and goals. I once got a fortune cookie that said, “Dreams without skills, are like wings with no feet.”  \We want to encourage students to take flight and also be prepared to land. Media lives in both the world of art and commerce and one always needs to remember that fact.

Let’s talk a little about the business of media.  What does the commercial future of media look like?

When I came into this industry in the U.S. there were 6 motion picture studios and 3 networks. If you didn’t work for or supply them then you didn’t work. Today the industry is so much larger and much more global. There are many more opportunities. Our students go to work for companies ranging from Warner Bros. to Microsoft, Electronic Arts to Marvel. They make films, television, games and immersive experiences. They develop companies and write software to enable media; they work in medicine and education. The language of media has become the global vernacular. If you cannot read and express yourself in the world of sound, image and interactivity then you are functionally illiterate today. Surely some parts of the industry are shrinking but other parts are growing. It is in my opinion a very healthy future and a very exciting one. Executives and political leaders who do not immerse themselves in understanding contemporary media do so at great risk.

There has been a lot of noise about the ‘millennial’ generation and how young people today are the first ever to have grown up entirely digitally connected.  Have you seen any changes in students today compared to those from few years ago?

Today’s students are very comfortable with technology and willing to explore what it has to offer. Regrettably because technology is often not embraced in secondary education they sometimes have the technical skills they’ve learned on their own, but not the conceptual, creative skills we would like them to have to create meaningful, exciting media objects. However they very quickly overcome this problem. As learners, they want information quickly and they want to learn things on their own as much as possible. I only wish the traditional education systems would embrace the affordances of emerging media in the classroom and not cling so tightly to old models of courses with lectures and tests.

This is a generation well equipped to explore and collaborate; they thrive in experiential project-based learning situations. We prefer to think of faculty as guides and mentors rather than conveyors of information. Information is everywhere; what we need the faculty to do is help contextualize information and make it meaningful for students giving them the abilities to use the information in new and creative ways. Let me give you just one example. Students can surely learn to edit media from the web. Companies like provide excellent tutorials. What we need our professional faculty to do is help them understand how editing creates meaning with sound and image, how it enhances the emotional experience of the consumers/viewers; how it shapes films; how it serves as the final writing of a script. To teach these skills, one needs a mentor who has insight into the language of media, not merely technical skills.

You’re known for finding a nice balance between the academic and creative elements of the media arts and forging strong ties with industry.  How would you define the optimal relationship between school and business?

USC School of Cinematic Arts was founded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1929, one year after the first Oscars were handed out. So we have always been very closely tied to our industry. I count on our industry partners not only for financial support but for guidance on the direction of the curriculum. They want a next generation ready to participate and lead the industry, and we want to always be sure that we are looking forward with our industry as we prepare curriculum.

We live in a rapidly changing environment, both in terms of technology and business. Our industry partners, be they alumni or corporate supports, know as we do that what is needed is professional education, not simply trade school skills, if students are to be successful and contribute. So like a medical school, we prepare practitioners, but also like a research university we prepare scholars who can articulate and elucidate the impact of media as well as the theory and history. We have long said that the strength of our program is the tight integration of theory and practice. We want all students to be conversant in both no matter where their professional lives may lead them. So what is the optimal relationship? I would say it is one where goals are fully shared and both sides take responsibility to achieve them.

Any special or new projects you’d like to tell us about?

Well we just opened a large new building devoted to emerging media – immersive, pervasive, interactive, mobile, games and whatever comes next. So we’re looking at ways to integrate all of these exciting developments across the School and be part of bringing new ways of entertaining, informing and educating to the world.

The World Economic Forum strives to ‘improve the state of the world.’ No small ask there!  How can the power of media best be applied to this, and what do you hope we can accomplish in our group to help support this?

Media is so very powerful and yet often dismissed as trivial, especially entertainment media, by corporate and political leaders. I would love to see the power of media as a force for social change and education brought more front and center at Davos.

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