Recently I experienced "the French way" of doing things when I, along with two other journalists covering the digital content creation industry, visited Valenciennes, France, near the Belgium border. The French prefer a wonderfully aged wine rather than a soda while dining, and their meals—eaten at a comfortable pace and never, ever on the run—comprise high-quality basics, meaning fresh bread, fresh vegetables, fresh cheeses, and fresh, lean meats. The French, particularly in Valenciennes, take a similar approach to the digital arts, as the students spend time learning and building on the basics of form and design before adding a fresh, innovative flare.
It goes without saying that Paris is the art capital of the world. Not far from there, in the cosmopolitan city of Valenciennes, digital art takes center stage—from the local government, to small start-up companies in the digital imagery sector, to the schools where the necessary skills are taught. It is a place where CG runs full circle, and where everyone in that circle reaps the benefits.
Starting at the top, the digital experience is promoted by the Valenciennes Chamber of Commerce. Unlike in the US, the city governments run the Chambers in France. Still, businesses there have a vital role—they are charged a monetary sum to fund the Chamber’s activities. All of those activities have the common goal of revitalizing the city by strengthening an economic chain with the following links: education, a skilled workforce, employment, and, finally, a growing business base.
The Chamber established three major DCC education facilities within its digital initiative—Supinfocom (founded in 1988), SupinfoGame (founded in 2002), and the Institute of Superior Design (ISD; founded in 1987). One of France’s leading schools for digital film directors, Supinfocom is a four-year school offering digital direction to students wishing to learn CG artistry. (See the Portfolio section, pg. 42, for a look at Supinfocom student animations.) Located in the same facility is SupinfoGame, the country’s video games institute where students learn game design and production management through both instruction and hands-on experience. Like its sister school, SupinfoGame requires fourth-year students to produce a final project, and for this program, it is a working video game as opposed to a short film. Quite impressive is the fact that 100 percent of the school’s first graduating class found work in the video game industry.
ISD, meanwhile, offers a four- to five-year program in advanced multimedia design or industrial design. Most of the graduates find employment within the industrial products and systems sector or in the automotive/transportation market. Nearby, students enrolled in the DREAM (Digital Research Education in Audiovisual and Multimedia) program at the local university (funded by the state) receive hands-on training while earning a degree in film and television production, postproduction, management, and engineering.
The students at these DCC facilities are encouraged to submit their senior projects or participate at on-site competitions during e-Magiciens, a European event hosted yearly in Valenciennes for young multimedia designers. In addition to the short-film competition, this past year’s event also featured a chained-animation event and a Web-jam competition (using Flash), as well as conferences, workshops, a software/hardware experimentation lab, and more.
When the students graduate, they don’t have to leave Valenciennes to find work, unless they want to. That’s because the Chamber encourages new local business in the DCC market through its Digital Studios, an incubator facility that provides the infrastructure for start-ups in related fields such as simulation, imaging, computer graphics, video games, and Web design. Businesses are offered subsidized rent in the shared-resource business park, where they have access to fully equipped conference rooms and state-of-the-art imaging and audio equipment.
Digital Studios opened its doors in 2000, and today it houses 21 firms that currently employ 130 people, many culled from the local schools. Among those businesses is CIMES, an engineering and technical studies company specializing in computer and mechanical simulation and structural analysis; GB One, a facility for the digital conversion and colorization of mangas; and IP4U, a developer of multimedia products and games for portable electronic devices and more. Once a start-up becomes more established, the company is encouraged to leave the Digital Studios facility to make room for newcomers.
In addition to its digital initiative, the Chamber of Commerce offers similar programs in other markets, including transportation (the city has one of the country’s largest car-manufacturing centers and railway engineering centers). This opens the door even further for ISD students looking for employment after their studies.
Why would the Chamber take on such a large, ambitious role? The answer is quite simple: It is breathing new life and vitality into the city of Valenciennes, which not long ago fell on hard economic times when its main industry—mining—crumbled. Rather than whither, the city chose to reinvent itself for the current generation by investing in new up-and-coming industries, one of which is digital media. Recently, as we visited the modern Digital Studios site, we could look across the street at Valenciennes’ past, as workers continued to dismantle a decayed industrial building to make room for a structure that would support the city’s future economy.
The monetary investment by the Chamber has been quite substantial, but the benefits have been readily apparent. Students pay surprisingly low tuition for the Chamber-funded schools (as is common in France), yet they receive a top-notch education, evident in the number of projects that continue to be selected for major film competitions, including the SIGGRAPH Animation Festival. Above all, the schools are flourishing, and the city has experienced healthy economic growth since beginning the initiative.
And the Chamber is not resting on its laurels. Currently, Digital Studios, the schools, and the Chamber are located within a 5-mile radius of one another. Soon that will change, as the Chamber is embarking on a 30 million euro initiative for a new campus that will bring Supinfocom, SupinfoGame, ISD, and the Digital Studios, along with a hotel for visitors, closer together in state-of-the-art facilities. To pay for this Technopol, which will be constructed in five phases, the Chamber is ponying up one-third of the cost; it will borrow another 10 million euros, and the remainder will come from private financing. The Chamber is also reaping success outside the city limits, as a digital campus of Supinfocom soon will open its doors in India under a three-year franchise agreement with a private investor. This marks the second expansion outside Valenciennes: the first was the Supinfocom campus in southern France.
The Valenciennes model to revitalizing its city and its economy appears to be working well for everyone in that town, and for the digital community as a whole, as these highly trained individuals are making their mark in digital studios locally and worldwide.