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Hope in animation

CLAUDE ROBINSON

Sunday, February 16, 2014    

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A little-noticed graduation ceremony took place on the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies, but it could have significant implications for how Jamaica engages in an unforgiving globally competitive world that places new demands on training institutions and job seekers alike.

Occasion was the graduation of the first cohort in what has been dubbed the 'Animate Jamaica' six-month certificate programme of the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication, with support from a private Jamaican animation company, Reel Rock GSW, the Government and the World Bank as a global partner.

A unique feature of the exercise, as pointed out by Education Minister Ronald Thwaites, was that the 28 young people graduating are all expected to find immediate employment, a rare occurrence in these times of high unemployment among young school leavers. Another 17 young animators also completed the programme at the Western Jamaica Campus of the UWI in Montego Bay.

A posting on the World Bank website reporting on the graduation and the exciting possibilities in the rapidly expanding animation business noted that the jobs for the graduates will happen because the Kingston-based Reel Rock GSW animation studio recently landed an international contract with a large French firm. (www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2014/02/12/jamaica-animation-industry-growth-jobs-kingstoon)

The story has national significance, not just because 45 young animators in cohort one of 'Animate Jamaica' will find jobs doing something they love, but because of the potential that experts and industry watchers see in the field of animation — one of the new growth areas that was not even a dream a decade ago.

Globally, the animation industry was worth about US$222 billion in 2013, according to Global Research and Markets in their recent 2014 report. (www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/2720918/global_animation_industry_report_2014)

The report identified the major animation markets as the United States, Canada, Japan, China, France, Britain, Korea and Germany.

"Most of the segments in the animation industry are growing at the rate of seven per cent year on year. The outsourced computer animation production market is increasingly being tapped by North American and European film and television programme producers," the report said.

Jamaicans, globally acknowledged for creative flair plus the fascination of our young people for the new information and communication technologies, seem well positioned to be major players in the animation industry, which uses the new tools for creating on-screen characters and telling stories.

Speaking at the graduation, World Bank country representative in Jamaica Giorgio Valentini quipped that in his many conversations with Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips about "boring matters" like structural adjustment and economic stabilisation, he has been impressing on the minister that animation could be part of the answer to the country's huge youth unemployment problem.

Dr Phillips, the keynote speaker, seemed to be catching on. Referencing the US$222-plus billion global animation industry, he commented, "We don't need to get all of it, not even 10 per cent of it, but we can get enough of it to seriously impact our current realities." He described the graduation as "a genuinely path-breaking venture which carries with it so many national hopes and dreams".

Will we catch the bus this time?

Listening to the speeches and watching the gleam in the young people's eyes and the pride on the faces of parents and relatives, I got a feeling that we may be on to something; but I could not escape our history of talking and talking and talking about potential while not doing what is required to make it happen. Will it be different this time?

As stated on the World Bank website, the training in animation skills is part of a broader initiative to explore "the possibilities of positioning Jamaica as one of the global hubs of animation with South Korea, India and The Philippines as a means of tapping into the significant creative talent of Jamaican youth and their interest in participating more actively in the global economy".

World Bank Country Representative Valentini added, "Today, we need to recognise not only the creative skills and dedication of all of you graduating from this first animation course, but also the existing partnership between young people like yourselves, the Government and the private sector in creating the space to launch Jamaica as an animation hub."

The language of an animation hub has the same sound as the current debate about transforming Jamaica into the fourth node in global logistics after Singapore, Dubai and Rotterdam, which is being offered as a game-changer for an economy that has been just about the worst performer in the world over the past four decades or so.

I don't see either a logistics or animation hub as a magic bullet for all our woes. Among other things, we also have to improve governance, get better outcomes in education, strengthen families, build social capital and create a better climate for business investment.

But both hub ideas offer the possibilities that come with new thinking. In the animation industry, things are changing in response to rapid advancement of technology, and an increased demand for animated entertainment products to fill the voracious appetite of cable and satellite TV and the Internet.

Quoting the World Bank again: "Jamaica today only has a few full animation studios. However, international companies are increasingly looking at Jamaica as a country of choice for outsourcing animation production, with a number of new contracts flowing in over the last few months. Existing animation studios need a constant and larger supply of professional animators to fulfil those contracts and expand."

With South Korea, India and The Philippines now shifting their focus to the generation of local content for their burgeoning middle classes, a widening skills gap has been created to support production lines in North America and Europe.

That's the gap that a Jamaican animation hub can fill to the advantage of today's young people who have no interest in yesterday's low-skill, low-paying jobs.

Another potential benefit, as Education Minister Thwaites remarked, is that training in animation skills may "hold the key to addressing the chronic underperformance of our youth in our [education] system. While they are still in school, we can begin to introduce them to valuable life lessons in an animated format to reduce boredom of the traditional classroom methods that often fail to engage our youth".

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the graduation was taking place during the observance of February as Reggae Month which has, inevitably, renewed discussion on what needs to be done to create more value from our creative industries and cultural products.

Bob Marley is the best-known Jamaican, and reggae music the best-known of the several Jamaican cultural expressions that have been embraced globally.

Almost a decade ago (October 23, 2005), I wrote in this space about fulfilling the potential to create jobs and wealth from Jamaican original cultural products: "Globally, reggae music is said to generate about US$8 billion a year -- about the same value as the entire Jamaican economy. But Jamaica's share of this pie is minuscule, as only the top performers and creative artists are big earners.

"We are even further behind in using the music and other indigenous cultural forms as a base for producing movies and television products for our own enjoyment and as an important addition to our other export earnings."

We have made some progress, but many practitioners still lament the gap between potential and achievement.

I believe the heart of the disconnect lies in the historic social and cultural gap between the business and political elites and the underclass from whom much of the creativity in music springs. For too long, the two have not really known or trusted each other.

It's changing, but not fast enough. Dare we hope that the excitement about hubs -- animation and logistics -- will actually create the trusting partnerships so vital for success? kcr@cwjamaica.com

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