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Universal Computer Arts Academy: Nuno Martins & Peter Den Hartogh

Cape Town school translates digital creativity into real world skills and accolades

Juliet Pitman

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Nuno Martins & Peter Den Hartogh of the Universal Computer Arts Academy

Two things are immediately obvious upon meeting Nuno Martins, principal of The Animation School in Cape Town – he’s fanatical about education and he’s a good businessman. With partner Peter den Hartogh, Martins founded what is South Africa’s only dedicated animation school in 2000 and since that time has built an institution that turns out award-winning graduates who are highly sought after by industry.

The Animation School has a string of accolades to its name – five gold Stone Awards, a first place in the MultiChoice Vuka Awards every year since it started entering in 2002 and a graduate who won an Emmy Award just two years after finishing the school’s course.

These successes are thanks to a combination of vision and hard work. Martins and Den Hartogh left Boston City Campus where they were running an animation course to start their own school. “Animation was something we were passionate about in a way that we didn’t feel other people were and we felt we could add more value by offering the course on our own as a niche focus school,” he explains. But, like setting up a business, setting up a school from scratch is no easy task.

Martins explains how he aggressively targeted high schools, giving talks on careers in animation and raising awareness of what was then called the Universal Computer Arts Academy. He elaborates on some of the biggest challenges presented by those early days of trying to market the concept:

“The thing was that we didn’t actually have a school to show them or any track record of the particular course we were offering. Many people have had their fingers burnt by private education institutions and it was a real challenge to convince them that we were going to deliver what we were promising.”

The partners’ qualifications stood them in good stead during this time. Den Hartogh has a lifetime of experience in production and a string of awards, and Martins was certified in Belgium as an international instructor, which means any institution he works at is also automatically certified internationally. ”These credentials certainly helped to motivate students and parents.

After that it was a matter of delivering on our service promise to gain their loyalty and trust,” says Martins. He welcomes moves being made by government through SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority) to accredit and benchmark all private institution qualifications and has become involved in helping SAQA set up a standard for animation courses.

The school constantly watches global animation trends and benchmarks itself against top animation schools around the world.

Martins is acutely aware of the responsibility he has as an educator and one of his key drivers is to ensure graduates will find work. “We see ourselves as servicing the animation industry and have very close ties with it, which is why so many of our students are employed in top production houses around the country,” he adds.

The Animation School team meets with industry representatives at the end of each year to motivate the case for employing their top students. Such a high number of employed graduates sets the school apart in a climate that sees so many highly qualified graduates from other institutions unable to find work.

Martins is a gifted educator, but he’s a businessman as well, as attested to by the growth of the school, which recently expanded into new premises. “It was always a dream of ours to build a school that would match the curriculum we had set. In the past we rented office space but it didn’t have the campus feeling that we wanted for our students,” he explains, adding that one of the most pressing needs was to provide residences for students, 70% of whom were from out of town and overseas.

“With animation being what it is, it’s also important that students are able to live near the place that they work, because it’s not a nine-to-five job,” he says. The school was initially funded by a bank loan, debt that was paid off after just three years.

This track record with the bank paved the way for another loan to build the new premises. Profits have been ploughed back into the school instead of being used to pay the directors huge dividends each year. “Although we run this as a profitable business and I absolutely see myself as a businessman, what we’re really committed to is providing the service people pay for.”

He’s proud of the fact that, in seven years, the school has never had a complaint from a parent or student about the service or level of instruction being provided.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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