In touch with… Dan Thorsland

Business Development Manager in the College of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences and self-proclaimed professional nerd Dan Thorsland is celebrating 35 years of sharing stories across diverse media. From comic books to web series, film, television and games, Dan has never let the challenge of unfamiliar technology deter from his curiosity to adapt a great tale.

What brought you to Flinders University?

This is my 20th year in South Australia after relocating from New York City. I’ve been fortunate to work with Flinders alumni in my roles at screen production studios here and knew the quality of coursework, and that our students are helping grow our local industry on the world stage. I wanted to be part of that, and the CHASS team are so great to work with I jumped at the chance to join them.

What makes the arts and creative industries such an important part of business?

My first jobs out of university were in the creative industries. Theatre, live music, television, advertising.

These were commercial environments and we were generally working to client briefs. Yet the better the idea, the more well-crafted and authentic the outcome, the more successful the projects were.

By the time I had my first dream job editing comic books in the 80’s, meeting creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and watching what was often seen as a childish and trivial medium change into a hotbed of incredible story and impact, I knew art and commerce had to be aligned. If we could use a longstanding cultural icon such as Superman to examine relationships of power and ethical behaviour and concepts of mortality, we could elevate the impact of the medium and sell more copies!

Today, we have many ways to express our culture and identity through story. The better our industry supports that expression, the better we feel as a community. Busy artists are the happiest people I know. My mission is to embed that creative spirit in every part of South Australian industry and elevate the work of artists as central to our prosperity and wellbeing.

You’ve worked with so many artists in many different industries. What are the common traits that lead to success?

First, an active artist has a very focused and acute state of mind. Creative expression as a child is easy because you are playful and keen to satisfy the inspiration to create. Once we add expectations and desire to inspire others, it gets hard!

In technically simple mediums, like writing, to technically complex mediums like computer games, artists must learn to persevere and stay connected to their audience. No matter where I have worked, when artists are focused and supported, their work and audience engagement is frequently amazing.

Second, peer work and collaboration are essential to longevity in the arts. Our ability to connect with an audience has so many ‘windows’ now… smartphones, streaming services, community and social media platforms.

New technologies such as virtual and augmented reality are just finding their feet in a global market hungry for entertaining and relevant content. As a creative, to adapt to this opportunity requires a careful mix of pride and humility. What you excel in is vital, but so is knowing what a collaborator does better.

When I moved to Adelaide, I was offered a job producing a multi-million-dollar budget video game, which I had never done! I had to adapt or be sent home, as I was on a work visa. My colleagues were younger, very technical and highly expert. Through their generosity and my willingness to work hard with them, we succeeded over and over, even through the GFC. Excellent coursework at university and the ability to interact with industry prepared me for that.

There are so many acute issues in the world now, do you see opportunities for the arts to be a part of the answers?

Absolutely. The most essential nature of an artist is to connect with their audience. It is the one industry where there is no easy answer to satisfy your market. What is funny? Beautiful? Uplifting? Scary? Thrilling? What encourages reflection and self-questioning so you feel more aware? And the desire to share that experience with friends and family?

No algorithm, drug, law or machinery can be applied to that solution, only creative expression that connects to human desire.

When I moved from analogue industries like print to web development in the 90’s, it was harder but essential to understand how people would be affected by art in this new medium. For the first time I saw how vital applied research was in navigating, as a storyteller, through a saturated market to reach a larger but more demanding audience. It seems long ago, but those learnings have only become more important as increasing amounts of information are generated every day and the globally connected audience demands meaning, accuracy and relevance.

I often ask people how much new content is uploaded to YouTube every 24 hours, and few know the answer: Over 82 years of new video! Every day. It is simply staggering.

What is unique to Flinders University that will help students and industry answer world needs in 2020 and beyond?

Big question! There was a lot of change and anxiety in the world before COVID-19 put us all at home and wondering what lies ahead. For some years I have wanted to join with the health and education industries to bring more focus on how creativity, the arts and human-centric design in services can collaborate for improved community wellbeing.

Flinders University has an on-campus medical facility, a world-class research ranking, and a longstanding reputation in the arts, both traditional and innovative. When you look our Rookies success, it’s clear our new generation of digital visual artists are making their mark. Now we are adding motion-capture capability and pushing further into digital deliveries that our students and researchers can leverage.

We can align the consumption of art, and the creation and interaction of artists in community, to this current crisis in isolation, identity and culture – and repurpose as we move into 2021.

Are these lofty, big-vision ideas? Yes. Cynics tend to suggest artists need a ‘Plan B’, a reliable job in a high-demand industry. Well, today, these industries are in a crisis they may struggle to recover from. What better time to stick to Plan A? Be visionary, be what you want, and find a way to make a world crying out for human touch into a better place.

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