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#DevLearn-GS1: Jon Landau – Innovation in Avatar and What Lies Ahead

Summary: Jon Landau made the case for innovation in e-learning, and also discussed the need to generate an emotional reaction.

Jon Landau embraces technology so aggressively and successfully that he’s earned an Academy Award and two Golden Globes for his work producing the two highest-grossing movies of all-time, Avatar and Titanic. His understanding of complex technologies, his experience working with creative talent of the highest caliber, and his ability to motivate people has enabled him to have a significant impact on the motion picture industry. At DevLearn, Mr. Landau shared his keen film-industry insights and management and motivational philosophies. He encouraged us to lead our organization, our careers, and our lives into the brave new world of technology, and the creative possibilities that lie ahead.

What Jon has in common with DevLearn attendees is the desire to create content that engages our respective communities so that, when the event is done, people leave with a feeling of time well spent. He argued that we should have a theme that is bigger than the “plot” or story of our learning. The “theme” should resonate and have some meaning for our learners.

The secret then to having an impact is to innovate in a way that provides for that emotional response from the audience.

He then went on to discuss the making of Titanic and how a complete replica of the ship was built in Mexico on 40 barren acres of land. He showed a video clip that documented how the Titanic was built in three major parts to help make it easier to break up the ship later as it sunk. The last scene, for example, where the ship was going down into the water with the two lovers atop the stern, was a separate portion of the ship that actually rotated up to a full 90 degree angle. Jon pointed to this as an example of innovation that brought Titanic to life for its audience.

Jon feels it’s important to always be looking ahead, and to seek out ways to apply technologies that create new and compelling experiences. In the same way, we have the same opportunitiy to create compelling experiences for our audiences.

In the movie industry, Jon noted that in each project tackled, the key is to find people who are willing to innovate, even at the risk of failure. Jon’s view is that there is more to learn from our failures than even our successes. We have to be willing to fail to succeed.

We should define what works for us based on the goals that we have. Solutions are always different to the extent that we have different goals.

Jon also noted that director James Cameron always writes his scripts without regard to what is possible. He then showed a clip from The Abyss (a 1980s movie) that discussed how James forced the special effects teams to break new ground in rendering the stunning special effects, even though they only had 900 MB of RAM to work with at that time! We should do the same, he encouraged. Write what works to meet the need, and then find a way to innovate as needed to execute that vision.

Further, Jon encouraged the audience not to wait for the technology. We should use our imaginations, he exhorted, to determine what the best e-learning experience should be, and then find the people and resources necessary to make our vision a reality.

For example, to create Avatar, Jon and James used “virtual production” to create the movie. In this approach, motion capture was taken to a new level – performance capture. This allowed facial expressions and other nuances to be captured. As a result, every performance in Avatar is the real performance of the actor even though many of the actors are not human beings! The clip that Jon displayed showed split screens of the actors saying their lines and emoting using facial expressions, and then compared this to the final production where the emotions in the filmed actors remained true to the actor’s intentions.

Jon went on to talk about 3D and how compelling it will be for e-learning in the future. He mentioned several studies that drew similar results – student retention was up to 70% better when at least part of their lessons were in 3D.

Ultimately, in Jon’s view, Avatar went to become the most successful movie ever because its theme is universal – a handicapped hero who transformed himself into a leader of people and ultimately reshaped the world.

That theme applies to us too. We should deliver on an emotional, not just an intellectual, level. When a learner completes one of our programs, they should know why it was created and how it can help them. Technology is not a threat, but an opportunity and a means to an end. It’s the people behind the technology that make things happen. In e-learning, we have to be that person and we have to shape a vision that compels our learners forward and generates an emotional reaction that cements the learning.

He closed by telling the story of how, during the making of Dick Tracy, he was talking with director Warren Beatty, who asked Jon what his best attribute was as a producer. After Jon gave three wrong answers, Warren finally offered, “Your best attribute is that you dream about the movie.” And it’s true, Jon said – he did always have new ideas about how to proceed or executive a vision. In short, Jon cared enough about the result to think of new ways to make it better.

Only when innovation is applied to a dream can it become a reality. And only a dream combined with courage to take action results in an innovation that becomes reality.

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