One of the guiding pieces of advice that Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts dean Chuck O’Connor offered Megan Elliott, founding director of the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts was this: “Treat it like a startup.”
For Elliott, that was a welcome suggestion, and a key reason the Australian with international tech sector and media ties moved to the middle of America to lead the center in the first place.
“I've been living in Beijing, Shanghai, London -- Lincoln, Nebraska, wasn't on my road map,” Elliott said. “But it is rare to be able to begin something.”
With a $20 million gift from the Johnny Carson Foundation and a future home -- the former Nebraska Bookstore at 1300 Q St. -- that will be gutted and renovated to fit the needs of the program, Elliott said the pieces are in place to make the Nebraska center a top program for students who want to tell stories through new mediums. (Think 360-degree virtual reality environments, or augmented reality apps like the Pokemon Go game that sent half of Lincoln running through city parks together last summer. And try to think of platforms that don’t yet exist, too.)
Her colleagues in the field believe in the promise of the center as well.
“What’s going to be great about it is all the elements are in its favor at this stage, and that makes it exciting,” said Tom Barker, chair of the digital futures initiative at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. “I was impressed with the attitude of the faculty as well. If you have new ideas coming in and a solid core, you are in great shape.”
"You cannot find a more perfect person,” said Erica Larsen-Dockray, who teaches experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts and former UNL graphic design student. “She is personable, but she can direct a room and she is so lively and she has such a great style. She's got such great style and really develops this whole idea of trendsetter. A really sort of unique individual. She's a woman, which I think is awesome. And she's also Australian, which I think is really cool. She's a perfect fit for this program.”
Prior to accepting the job last year, Elliott served as director and CEO of X Media Lab. It’s a business founded in 2003 by her husband, Brendan Harkin, an early adopter of digital media arts in Australia. (Before moving to Lincoln, Elliott and Harkin were two of five interactive media arts pioneers asked to record oral histories for Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive. Since moving here, they've started a monthly Meetup at Fuse Co-Working Space for people interested in the worlds of artificial intelligence and data sciences -- “116 members!” she wrote in an email on Wednesday. The next meeting is June 5 at 5 p.m.)
Before joining X Media, Elliott was the executive director of the Australian Writers’ Guild from 2002-06, a time when writers for video gaming platforms joined screenwriters for traditional media -- TV, radio, film, theater -- under the guild’s umbrella. That was her suggestion, she said, because she recognized the emerging creative platform. She’s been focusing on what’s next throughout her career, even while working with writers.
"So I came from a traditional area and Brendan came from ... the internet," Elliott said, laughing. "And they thought they were going to take over the world and we were like, 'No you're not, because you can't tell compelling enough stories.’ So we kind of merged, and that's at the heart of the Johnny Carson Center, too. It's about how technology and storytelling work together, and how they inform each other."
With X Media, Elliott and Harkin traveled all over the world, hosting conferences where they picked projects tied to the digital arts -- games, film, animation, etc. -- that they considered worthy of input from a team of successful mentors who could help them fast-track their product over one hyperactive weekend.
“They spend this intense two days talking about what they’re working on,” Harkin said in a promo for the company years ago.
In Lincoln last weekend, Elliott led something similar. But instead of trying to develop a product for, say, an app store, the focus this time was developing a new curriculum.
On May 20-21, Elliott led a team of tech industry experts, UNL faculty and current and prospective students through a crash course designed to help develop what the Carson Center should offer. The group of about 50 included industries representatives based as close as a few blocks away (Kyle Murphy, vice president of design at Hudl) and as far-flung as China (Charles Wang, head of the advanced Innovation Center for Future Visual Entertainment at the Beijing Film Academy).
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On the first morning, a dozen emerging media arts experts gave Ted Talk-like presentations in a packed room at the Temple Building. Recurring topics in the talks included the rise of virtual reality experiences, the switch from passive entertainment (books, movies, TV) to immersive entertainment and the need -- right now -- for employees who are both creative and technologically skilled.
Then, Elliott locked everyone in a room to brainstorm the future of the Carson Center.
“They weren’t quite locked in,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t quite an escape room. It was a mixture of industry, potential students and faculty and we were all together to workshop towards developing an emerging media arts curriculum. On Saturday we focused on what we were going to be learning. And on Sunday, we focused on how we’re going to get there, the structure of the course, things like that.”
It’s a little early to reveal details, as Elliott spent much of the past week poring over notes and emailed feedback from participants -- “love notes,” as she referred to them -- in advance of a report she’ll release.
"A lot of great work was done," Elliott said. "A lot of brilliant ideas were generated. That's going to take us some time to synthesize."
The curriculum is a work in progress, and one that Steve Cooper, director of UNL’s Raikes School of Computer Science and Management and a speaker at the conference, said can’t truly be assessed until the first wave of the center’s students graduate from UNL in 2023. But the center’s vision and mission has been stated.
“The Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts will build upon the strengths of UNL’s collaborative culture and will be unique among programs of its kind nationally,” the mission states in part. “It will be a place where physicists work with emerging media artists, writers and designers to create an immersive world that shows what happens when atoms collide; where engineers, biomedical faculty and Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film students create haptic simulations of the human body to help train surgeons; or where animators and computer scientists collaborate to develop high-speed networks for rendering 3D animation.”
“I’m clearly very excited about the possibilities,” Cooper said during his speech last Saturday.
Larsen-Dockray grew up near Scottsbluff and presented last weekend about the multi-state and school path she took to become an art instructor, created many of her own works, often centered on gender and human rights issues, through a mix of media -- an interactive installation that combined elements of a science museum and a carnival funhouse to tell the story of a first pregnancy, for example. She said she first heard about the Carson Center when former chancellor Harvey Perlman spoke about it at a Nebraska Coast Connection meetup for Husker grads now working in Los Angeles.
"They talked about this center, and I was just blown away, because it was things that I wished were there," Larsen-Dockray said. "And it was so exciting to hear that Nebraska was really taking this big step forward past a lot of the other schools on this topic and this area and devoting the amount of resources that it actually deserves."
O’Connor said that Carson Center mission was reaffirmed in the workshops.
“We’ve sort of coalesced around a few great themes,” O’Connor said. “In everything we want to do, we want to tell great stories from the heart, whether it’s in theater or film or virtual reality. We want to do what’s never been done before, period, and we want our students to do the same.”
Speaking of virtual reality, here’s something that came from the weekend that can be shared. The Carson Center for Emerging Arts will partner with Advanced Micro Devices, a computer processor giant whose head of alliances, content and VR showed a clip of moviegoers viscerally spazzing out while demo-ing the “Paranormal Activity Virtual Reality Game” during the Carson Conversations. Elliott said that Roy Taylor, who spoke of how VR tech advancement is changing film and gaming industries (and also showed a clip of himself getting spooked by the immersive “Paranormal” game), emailed her after the weekend to propose that the new UNL center be a beta-testing site for AMD.
O’Connor said that developing those types of industry partnerships were key when a headhunter was hired to look outside of academia to find a director for the Carson Center. The goal, he said, was to “find somebody who is at the very vanguard of where all this is heading, and we found Megan.”