of Ninja

“We’re not fine-arts students, communication students, or computer-science students,” says Forziati. “We’re a little bit of all three, and that separates us into our own group. Because of that, you start to see us ‘evolve’ some similar characteristics that one needs in order to survive the complex world of DMD.”

Among those characteristics is a willingness to dive in and fix problems—and take risks.

“They don’t follow rules well,” says Calhoun. “And that’s exactly what makes them good DMD students. And it’s probably what makes them a pain in the neck to everybody else. We are an annoying, fidgety, break-things-and-fix-it cult—who make horrible noises.”

Her use of the first-person plural there is telling. Many of the DMD students and alumni interviewed for this article went out of their way to toss Calhoun bouquets, in terms ranging from “den mother” to “counselor of the year,” while Badler called her the program’s “secret weapon.”

“Enough cannot be said about Amy,” says Salim Zayat. “She is everything to this program. She toils endlessly to improve it, constantly getting student feedback about everything, always fighting tooth-and-nail for them. She makes the program succeed because she gets us to believe in it.”

“DMD feels more like a close-knit family or club than an academic program,” says Forziati. “When you sit back and look at the work done by DMD students, you get chills. Just being able to struggle for so long to work on something and make it good and then to have people like it and critique it—that’s a great feeling. It makes you proud to see what DMDers are capable of. And DMDers are proud to be DMDers!”

In Calhoun’s view, the hard part about DMD is that “suddenly they’re surrounded by other people who might be as good or better than they are.” The flip side of that competition, though, is that “there’s also somebody to talk to—and what they learn from each other is far more valuable than what we teach them in the classroom.”

“Everyone has their own niche in DMD,” says Forziati, “so if you don’t know something, there’s bound to be someone who does. Want to know the best software to use for that animation? Which colors to use on a Web site? What shutter speed will work best in that light? Ask around. Someone will have your answer!”

Often as not, those answers will be discovered in the small hours of the night. DMD students appear to be pathologically addicted to wildly ambitious group projects.

“Many, many, many all-nighters are part of a DMD student’s life,” says Kevin Chan. While he admits that some were the result of “poor time-management” (a recurring theme in DMD conversations), “many others were the result of pure interest and zeal for a particular project.”

“With three major components of study in the program, it’s extremely challenging trying to find a way to juggle the very different classes,” explains Forziati. “Computer science alone is hard enough! Constantly switching your brain back and forth between such opposite things as algorithms and color is not easy. Which do you spend more time on? Will you be all night in the computer lab or the fine-arts building?”

The fact that DMD is so dependent on practical experience and extracurricular projects “just adds another 10 pieces to the impossible time-management puzzle,” he notes. “Come to think of it, the hardest part about DMD might, in fact, be accepting that you will never be able to do everything you want!”

Given the highly demanding nature of the DMD course-load, says Omer Baristiran, “your ego would break if you were alone. But you’re not alone. Without that factor, you would really go crazy.”


Not long ago, Amy Calhoun recalls, the head of a small animation company had a decision to face. He wanted to option the rights to a story that featured animated monkeys. His fallback story involved animated pigeons.

“One of his animators said to him, ‘Monkeys are really hard, because hair is hard,’” says Calhoun. “And he said, ‘How about birds?’ They said, ‘Feathers are hard, but they’re not as hard as hair —go with the pigeons.’ So literally, the drawing that it would take to produce the film dictated which story he got to make a film.”

Keeping up with the hyper-evolving technology behind the computer-graphics industry is a staggering challenge, albeit one with big-time payoffs. That animation-company president concluded that DMD provided the “perfect education for somebody who was going to go into producing, directing, or running film companies, because you understand all the aspects of the technology,” says Calhoun. “And you won’t buy into things that are impossible to do.”

In places like Industrial Light & Magic or Pixar, “you have two teams of people: the artists and the computer scientists,” she points out. “But you have nobody who’s equally educated in both, who can bridge that gap. And those two groups cannot speak to each other, because they don’t share any common vocabulary. That’s what our students do—they translate.”

Exactly what students will be doing with DMD degrees a decade from now is probably an unanswerable question. Asked where he sees the program in 10 years, Badler responds: “On a technological line, the future will get both better and worse. It will get better because increasingly powerful software systems will be available to students. The bad side is, increasingly powerful software systems will be available to students—and they will perceive less of a need to learn the programming side of digital media.”

DMD alumni, of course, have a slightly different view of the program’s future. Kevin Martin thinks the future will be “wherever the students take it”—and that the only limit will be their imaginations.

“Going through the process of developing an idea from concept to creation teaches one thing: how to adapt and therefore teach yourself,” he says. “The DMD program is based on this thought-process. You may be trying to do something that no one has ever done—at least no one at Penn, faculty included. But that doesn’t mean Don’t do it. It means Figure it out.”

“With DMD, it’s a frontier, and it’s an exciting frontier, but at the same time, you’re out on your own a lot of times,” says Nathan Schreiber. “It’s a dynamic field, one that’s constantly changing. That’s one of the things that makes it slippery as hell.”

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

FEATURE: The Cult of DMD
By Samuel Hughes