As Engineering freshman Samantha Merritt explained, her entrance into Penn’s Digital Media Design program started simply: with checking a box.
But that checked box — the only required element of the DMD application that differentiates it from other applications to the School of Engineering and Applied Science — can lead students to Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks Studios, The Walt Disney Company, Electronic Arts and a number of other major media companies where alumni have found jobs.
Founded 12 years ago, the DMD program provides undergraduate students with an Engineering degree. But it also requires classes in communications and fine arts, with the ultimate goal of preparing students for the ever-expanding world of computer graphics.
Associate Director Amy Calhoun said DMD attracts highly motivated students who know their specific interests but may have lacked a perfect academic fit before college.
“A lot of our students would be the only person from their high school who wanted to watch outtakes on Pixar DVDs and [would] get excited about the effects,” she said.
Every year approximately 15 to 20 students are accepted into the program as freshmen, although students can also transfer as sophomores, Calhoun explained.
To select the class of 2014, DMD faculty and staff reviewed roughly 80 applicants, some of whom were admitted to a different school at Penn if they did not get into the program.
DMD junior Joe Forzano — who discovered the program after searching “computer graphics” on the College Board website — said his major has not only satisfied his interest in math and science but also expanded his passion for art.
A committed dancer in high school, Forzano said that although he lacked the visual arts background to submit the portfolio recommended as part of the DMD application, he has since surprised himself by taking — and loving — 11 fine arts classes at Penn, all because of the exposure he has gotten through his major.
Forzano hopes to eventually land a career in special effects for film, possibly through the video game industry.
This fits well with the broader program that encompasses DMD, known at Penn as Computer Graphics. Along with DMD, it includes a master’s program in Computer Graphics and Game Technology and a doctorate program in Human Modeling and Simulation.
The three programs are anchored in the SIG Center for Computer Graphics in the Moore Building, which Calhoun said hosts students at all hours of the day and night.
At any given moment, a student may be in the lab donning a motion capture body suit, which allowed DMD junior Kaitlin Pollock to study the physical symptoms of exhaustion this summer so these features can be more realistically animated, while some of her classmates looked at the physics of rotting tomatoes, also for animation.
Calhoun said the unique combination of shared interests and diverse strengths characterizes the tight-knit community that is DMD.
Although students “find a community of like-minded souls,” she said, they all bring special skills to the table.
For Merritt, whose classes this semester range from programming to journalism, DMD’s many elements come together to give her confidence about her future.
“I love DMD, so I’m going to love whatever I do with my life,” she said.
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