Culture, Features

The LEGACY Issue: Danny Boyle works with SODA students – the next generation of digital creatives

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Featured image: Bradley Sansom

From hosting the 2023-24 Métiers d’art Chanel show, to being chosen as the new headquarters of the English National Opera, to the launch of Aviva Studios as the home of Factory International, Manchester is undoubtedly experiencing a cultural moment.

Manchester’s position as a cultural hub is not new. Historically, the city’s cultural institutions have played a pivotal role in shaping its civic identity and public spaces but what’s new here is this shift towards developing an international outlook with a focus on digital innovation. This is no coincidence, as Manchester City Council’s digital strategy aims to make it a world-leading digital city by 2025.

At the centre of this transformation is Aviva Studios, a landmark cultural space in the heart of Manchester, hosting theatre, concerts and exhibitions. With plans to ‘reshape the city’s cultural output’, the 7,000 capacity venue aims to attract 850,000 visitors a year and bring £1.1billion into the local economy over the next decade.

Award-winning director and producer Danny Boyle (think Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting), directed the official opening production Free Your Mind. This Matrix-themed, large-scale immersive performance offers a dramatic re-telling of the classic sci-fi film through dance, music and visual effects, to explore the potential of the digital revolution.

The production was created in collaboration with students from Manchester Met’s School of Digital Arts (SODA). SODA is a £35 million investment into the workspaces, networks, teaching and research needed to drive the next generation of creative content.

Jill Griffiths, Head of SODA, explains how this project came about. “Danny is part of our industry advisory group and he approached me about the possibility of students contributing,” she says. “I was absolutely delighted about the idea and keen to make it happen.” Following a competitive process, nine students were selected by the panel to participate.

The video work created by these students from the Filmmaking, Future Media Production and Music and Sound Design programmes features significantly in the production.

Boyle says: “It seemed the perfect opportunity to use the skills and resources of the students here at the School of Digital Arts to connect with The Matrix which is about our digital futures.”

Student filmmaker Lui Bauer highlights Boyle’s awareness of the importance of involving the younger generations: “Danny was of the opinion that you cannot tell a story about the digital age without consulting people who are digital natives.”

‘Digital natives’ refers to those who have grown up surrounded by technology. Lui says “by including the points of view of a digital native who is less scared and more open to these new technologies, but with some criticality as well”, Boyle created a more nuanced conversation about the role of AI in relation to the future of technology.

This was an interdisciplinary project, says Lui, with “dialogue that was happening between all these disciplines”. Lui adds: “That’s what I really enjoyed, finding the way for all these practices to come together and inform each other, not work against each other. SODA teaches an awareness of other disciplines, which is a core skill for the industry, and makes you a better creative.”

Film student and aAh! filmmaker Charlie Andrew reflects on the creative freedom the project allowed. “Making content every week really helped develop our roles,” he says. “We were able to have this powerful sense of freedom in terms of what we were able to put on the screen.”

Working on a large-scale commercial project for the big screen is a once in a blue moon opportunity for most film students, but also comes with its challenges. Charlie’s contribution was a short film which explores the history of Manchester. He says: “Trying to fill this huge screen with interesting content that the whole audience will be able to consume and understand was bizarre.”

Jayden Roy Crooks, a second year filmmaking student, describes the euphoric moment of seeing these various disciplines come together: “I remember from the beginning moment to it all coming together – seeing Danny’s vision being executed.”

A core group of academic and technical staff from SODA supported the students throughout the project. Students worked in SODA’s professional editing suites and studios to create high quality content with access to cameras over the summer which meant production could continue outside university term time.

Jill says: “My colleagues were brilliant. Not only did the students have access to all of the facilities, but they had people to support them as well.”

There are several initiatives emerging which suggest that community and inclusivity are being increasingly prioritised in the digital arts scene in Manchester. ‘Factory Academy’ offers free training programmes to diversify the workforce in creative and cultural industries, offering a way for up and coming creatives to get involved in the arts industry. 

Film student Charlie says that Factory International are “well aware of the next generation of creatives” and suggests “this should give the North a boost, to put Manchester firmly on the map in terms of the creative arts.” Lui praises Factory’s ability to “attract artists and find ways to bring out the talent in the local community”. Platforming creative, local young people offers a refreshing shift from what has been a historically impenetrable industry for anyone who does not come from a highly privileged background.

SODA has a number of ongoing collaborations and partnerships with industry and cultural organisations, such as with Factory International at Aviva Studios and HOME. On the possibility of similar projects in the future, Jill says: “Where we have an opportunity to do something at large scale, we will absolutely move to make that happen. We are keen to make sure that our students have as many opportunities as possible.”

This positive approach is not lost on the students. Digital innovation and expanding student practice are at the heart of SODA’s philosophy, bringing students from various courses together to create. Charlie says: “SODA is aware of the past, especially within filmmaking practice. When we are shown inspiration for projects, a range of older and newer pieces are showcased. It’s about being aware of the past and present.”

Jayden thrives on being pushed, he admits. “SODA is a place that pushes the boundaries, pushes people into connecting with each other, and pushes what you can do digitally,” he says. Lui agrees. “It excels at creating a space where you can experiment. SODA is a place where it’s not frowned upon to make something that’s a little bit odd.”

Jill is delighted at what this project represents, and what it has achieved. “This project for me absolutely encapsulated what SODA was created to do, which is to provide students with the knowledge, experience and skills to be able to work on collaborative artistic projects and performances with globally recognised artists and cultural organisations,” she says.“SODA’s aim is to be a leader in innovative creative digital arts that bring together different artistic fields and practices and which reaches not only a Manchester and regional audience, but a global audience too.”

The collaboration with Danny Boyle was a particularly rewarding experience for the students, for Jill and her colleagues. “We were absolutely thrilled to see the students’ work during the performance,” she says. “We are really proud of them.”

Historically, creative opportunities have tended to be centred on London, yet this is changing as more studios leave and head North. Manchester is embracing digital innovation, with young people at the centre of this transformation. As a young digital artist in Manchester, Charlie Andrew is in a great position as a filmmaking creative. “I think it’s very exciting,” he says. “Manchester is definitely on the rise for the creative industries.”

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Tara Morony

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