Animation, digital filmmaking core of new school’s curriculum

11/11/2012 1:33 PM

11/11/2012 1:50 PM

Two Wichita entrepreneurs say they plan to open a new school in January called MindFire Academy, teaching state-of-the-art 3-D animation, digital filmmaking and other courses.

Several administrators of higher education in Kansas say Jason Opat and Max Cole are creating not only a new school and new business in Wichita, but what may be a new model for higher education in Kansas.

“It’s a noble idea, and that alone commands our attention,” said Rodney Miller, dean of the Wichita State University’s College of Fine Arts. Technology is rapidly altering the landscape of higher education, he said. Educators must adapt, with ideas involving innovation, partnerships with business, and consortiums with other schools.

“If Jason hadn’t come to us, we’d have come to him, or someone like him,” Miller said.

Opat said the academy will open for classes in January, with Opat’s alma mater, Bethany College of Lindsborg, operating as the accrediting institution and with Wichita State University probably playing a role, now and down the road.

Though no formal agreement has been worked out, Miller said WSU is taking this idea seriously. “We like the idea very much.” MindFire could offer classes and technology not currently available at WSU.

Keri Myers, executive director of development for Butler Community College, said that school is looking at the idea too.

Opat, the CEO of IMG (Integrated Media Group), has moved his company in with MindFire Academy at the old Wichita Mall; Opat’s staff will work for IMG and teach at the academy.

Ed Leonard, president of Bethany College said they are trying to create a consortium so flexible that a student from Butler County or a Wichita high school could take a course at Bethany’s MindFire classes in Wichita, and easily transfer credits to other colleges.

Bethany will offer accredited undergraduate certificates at MindFire in the media arts specialties of 3-D graphics, 3-D animation, digital filmmaking and digital documentary filmmaking, said Ken Macur, Bethany’s provost. “We regard this as an exciting opportunity,” Macur said.

What Bethany gets out of this, Leonard said, is that students might realize that completing their four-year college degree at Bethany is a good idea.

Opat created IMG several years ago and began doing special effects, including on-set graphics, for movies such as “Iron Man,” “Transformers,” “Get Smart,” and “Spiderman 3.” Some of his creations for local businesses can be seen around town; for example, a hologram he created at IMG of Wichita model Liz Rizo is used at Wesley Medical Center. Rizo’s cheerful hologram greets visitors at the front entrance, interacting with visitors by giving more directions at the push of a button.

The proposed school, MindFire Academy, has lain dormant for several years inside the empty corridors and storefronts of the old Wichita Mall, along Harry Street south of Via Christi Hospital. Cole acquired the building in the early 1990s, and renamed it Office This. The corridors to this day are still adorned with large murals and other artwork that Cole put up to project an art-school atmosphere.

Cole began to put MindFire Academy together six years ago. “I thought, what kid doesn’t want to learn about filmmaking, music, and animation?” Cole said in an e-mail interview. “It could really be the key to get them interested, with the idea of closing the gap and leading the kids to middle level skills, at least.”

MindFire failed to catch fire then, Cole said, in part because of the recession.

But Cole said MindFire revived several months ago after he persuaded Opat to partner with him.

Cole says he has spent “millions” on this project, and will spend more.

“We all know that kids today have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cellphones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age,” Cole said.

Opat said he’s confident he can sign up young people. “A lot of students have told me how they’d like to learn this kind of work.”

He also said there is a large and growing market for skills his IMG staff can teach.

To make his point, Opat pulled his smartphone out of his pocket.

“See all these images?” he said pointing to logos, graphics and videos. “Somebody has to actually create all those images,” he said. “There’s no reason why they have to be created elsewhere. We could create them here, and create a new workforce here in Kansas to do it.”

Opat winced when asked how much taking a class at MindFire might cost, although that will be worked out soon. Perhaps as much as $2,000 a class, he said.

But he and Cole said projected costs are a key reason they and educators are working to get MindFire professionally accredited. Accreditation helps students get financial aid, student loans, and scholarships. Costs for software and equipment also go down, Cole said.

Opat said that when IMG began doing work for Hollywood, he deliberately didn’t tell movie makers that the work they liked was coming out of Wichita.

But the world has now reached a stage where technology can be done and exported anywhere. Wichita’s recent losses of aircraft jobs concerned him; he wants to help create a new industry.

Under his plans, students could take college level classes at MindFire and transfer those hours to Bethany, Butler or other colleges.

Macur said he’s working on agreements with other schools.

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