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September 13, 2005

UMBC's Imaging Research Center: Beyond Visionary

By Patrick Coyle, UMBC

Since its inception in 1987, artists and researchers across disciplines have collaborated in the creative environment of UMBC's Imaging Research Center (IRC), a state-of-the-art R&D studio for digital media, animation and visualization.


One of the IRC's most recent projects is Euphoria, a full-length feature film about the pursuit of happiness. Written, directed and narrated by Lee Boot, the IRC's associate director, Euphoria received a gold medal for best documentary at the WorldFest-Houston festival and had its Baltimore premiere at the Maryland Film Festival in May. (Watch a trailer for the film online.)

As a teacher with 15 years experience, a classically trained artist with a degree in painting and owner of the Baltimore-based educational media company InfoCulture, Boot is in a unique position to bring his life experience to the role of director, researcher, artist, but above all, educator. Here, he talks about the IRC's research mission and the making of Euphoria.

Would you describe the IRC as a comprehensive imaging lab?


Yes, but we take that word "imaging" and we stretch it a lot, and I think that's important. One of the reasons the IRC is more than a traditional imaging lab is that we don't want to be just a service bureau or technical design shop. We do research, that's our mission.


We produced a high-end kiosk for the Baltimore Museum of Art, digitally recreating the Cone sisters' incomparable collection of early 20th Century painting. Now a lot of museums want us to create something similar for them. But I say no, because to repeat ourselves doesn't constitute a research challenge, but a production challenge, and that's not our goal.


Is this imaging in a philosophical sense?


It is. In fact, a major goal of the IRC is to be a part of research that increases our ability to track the way research affects culture.

Euphoria is a full-length film, with graphics and editing done by the IRC, that will hopefully revolutionize the approach to education films. How is it different?


Euphoria is an attempt to create an "information-based film" for entertainment. Specially, it's a film that conveys what we know about what creates long-term fulfillment, happiness, euphoria-including neuroscience, psychology, the history of the pursuit, etc.


The story is told by juxtaposing visual metaphors against information-based narration, so essentially the story is told with metaphors, a very different way to approach this information. Initially some worried that it would be too challenging for teenage audience members, but nobody thinks twice in high school about teaching difficult texts and artwork like Shakespeare, Faulkner, Van Gogh. They're not considered beyond the high school mind. We'd like to raise this media to a higher form of art. We count on the teacher to deconstruct them. So we're asking, "Why should an informational film always be understood completely in real time?"


What was the research process for the film?


Similar to the way a researcher might proceed with a science grant, I targeted a program at the National Institutes of Health that promoted neuroscience education, and began to assemble a team. I was able to recruit two neuroscientists, one oriented toward the physiology of the neuron and another with a more global orientation to the brain, an addiction psychiatrist, a science-media expert, a great anthropologist and two people from different ends of the film business.


Then I set out to learn how to write the research grant, which was very hard and new for me because my background is not in science-I'd never done it. The grant came in two phases, the first to prove feasibility and the second to produce the full film and evaluate its effect on teenagers' beliefs, attitudes and intentions. Sometimes I find that people think we were paid by the NIH to make a film. That's not true. The NIH supported a research question which asked: is our plan a way to make a different kind of science education film that teenagers will find engaging enough to really hear the information and allow it to help them find a way to feel good without drugs?

How would you describe Euphoria's potential effects on culture?


Euphoria is funded by the National Institutes of Health, in particular, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, because they believe that by talking about what does create "euphoria" in a believable way, it could go a long way toward preventing kids from becoming dependent on substances. They also like our approach that we're aiming for something beyond a typical educational film. There's also an extensive Web site that teachers can use at www.TheEuphoriaProject.com .


* * *


The IRC is currently working on a new project called Fieldtrip, a plan to use an array of media to help students and their parents better understand a range of issues related to learning, so they can make informed choices and take a more active role in education.. This will likely include the IRC's first-ever video game, which will complement the Fieldtrip Web site and film.

Learn more about the IRC at www.irc.umbc.edu .


Watch a Maryland Public Television feature on the IRC.


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Posted by howell1 at September 13, 2005 11:58 PM