Fulbright report: six months at the School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles

Friday, October 3rd, 2014 | General

As an interaction designer and researcher, I have always been fascinated by the power of visual communication and moving images in particular. Therefore, I was thrilled when I got invited to visit the School of Cinematic Arts at USC in Los Angeles for six months in 2013-2014. So, what happens when you put an introvert Norwegian in Los Angeles for half a year?

Los Angeles


From Hollywood celebrities to traffic jam

For Norwegians, Los Angeles is probably most known for Hollywood movies and celebrities, in addition to beautiful beaches and palm trees. However, Los Angeles is extremely diverse. As one of the locals expressed it, Los Angeles is more like a salad bowl than a melting pot: different cultures and traditions exist alongside each others in stead of blending together. From Korea town to Bevery Hills, Downtown to Santa Monica – these are all sub-cities that apparently exist completely independent of each other.

Another obvious aspects that characterizes LA, is its car culture. It seems like everyone you talk to in LA have a car, and spend 1-3 hours each day just to get between home and work. Only one person in each car, of course! The traffic is overwhelming. For this reason, the first impression of the city can be quite harsh, but as you start to know different areas and spots in the city, it’s hard not to fall in love with it.

LA coll-03


Introverts in LA

I was traveling to the US together with my husband, who was visiting UCLA as part of his PhD studies in cell biology. We both consider ourselves introverts, and consequently we were slightly anxious about how we would fit in, considering that LA is known for its outgoing and extrovert culture.

However, we quickly learned to appreciate the small talk in the shops, colleagues introducing us to their coworkers, and the including atmosphere in general. (And by the way, there are introvert people in LA as well, believe it or not!).

In addition, we were lucky to make friends with some of the locals quite early on, who brought us to cosy restaurants, beautiful hiking trails and intriguing exhibitions, and included us in American traditions such as Thanksgiving.


It’s all about the story

If I have to choose one word that summarizes the professional insight I gained in LA, it is the word ‘storytelling’. Everywhere you go in LA, from cafés to offices, from parties to academic seminars, people are talking about storytelling, as well as enacting it.

Considering that 120 000 people are employed in the entertainment industry in LA, this might not come as a big surprise. However, storytelling is not necessarily about creating the next Hollywood blockbuster; it might as well be used as a tool for creating engaging real world experiences or stimulating social change. If you have ever been to Disneyland, you know what I am talking about: everything is planned, staged and choreographed from beginning to end.

Storytelling is about telling an audience or reader how something happened to someone through a series of events. There is often some sort of conflict in the story, something that craves our attention. As a result, people are engaged and able to relate to what you have to say. Some researchers even claim that our brains are ‘hardwired’ for stories. Through storytelling, we can not only entertain people, we can also convey information and explain complex issues. Is seems to me that academics and researchers in particular have much to learn from storytellers.

LA collage 2


Visiting the School of Cinematic Arts

The School of Cinematic Arts at USC is often ranked as the top educational institution for movie makers in the world. However, the teaching and research at the school deals with all kinds of ‘world building’ beyond movies, including computer games and other forms of interactive experiences across various media platforms.

The faculty at the school are hard working, teaching as well as doing research. It was striking to discover how many of the teaching staff combine their job at the university with entrepreneurial work such as consulting, movie making, running a shop, or starting a new business. The American Dream is very much alive, obviously generating a lot of creativity, knowledge and value. For example, one of the highlights of our stay in LA was an event at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, hosted by a company started by one of my colleagues at USC.


Data visualization and 3D printing

The aim of my research at USC was to explore interactive data visualization. During my stay I participated in several classes as well as research projects. The main outcome of my stay was a physical platform for interactive data visualization, which I called the ‘VizBox’. The VizBox combines 3D printing, projection mapping and gesture interaction. In order to document and convey the potential of such a platform, I created a video that demonstrates some of its possibilities.


Home, sweet home

Back in Norway, I am filled with gratitude for everything I got to experience in the US, and the friends I have made along the way. But being away from Norway for so long also made me appreciate how everyone in Norway have more or less equal opportunities – be if for education, healthcare or marriage. This is something we tend to take for granted. So be it that we might not be as good at storytelling, small talk and entrepreneurship as the angelenos.

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