Digital arts program offers interdisciplinary study plans

by Kylee Sibilia | 2/9/18 2:35am

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Source: Courtesy of Lorie Loeb

This article was featured in the 2018 Winter Carnival Issue.

The phrase “digital arts” may seem paradoxical: a confluence of two fields that have almost nothing in common. At Dartmouth, however, students and faculty have worked together to create innovative projects at the heart of the intersection between art and technology.

In the past two decades, the College has increasingly focused on the digital arts, in conjunction with the field’s explosive rise in the wider world. Today, Dartmouth has a digital arts minor, a modified major and a specialized graduate studies program for students interested in exploring this interdisciplinary field further.

One of the things that makes digital arts at Dartmouth so unique is the sheer number of departments it encompasses. With classes available in the computer science, studio art, film and media studies, engineering, music and theater departments, the program is one of the most interdisciplinary at the College. In these classes, students learn a variety of different skills, including 3D modeling, 3D animation, digital design, Photoshop, virtual reality, interactive installations, 3D printing, laser cutting and sound editing. Most students come into these classes with little to no artistic ability, and the course draws students from all different majors.

Justin Luo ’20, who is pursuing a computer science major modified with digital arts, said the digital arts faculty work to make the program accessible to everyone regardless of previous ability.

“I think [the professors] and the TAs make it really easy for someone who doesn’t have any artistic background to be able to come in and just give it their best shot,” said Luo, describing the “3D Digital Modeling” class offered by the computer science department. “They teach you how to create 3D models that look visually appealing. I think a lot of the class was just experimenting and just learning how to be artistic too. It taught you a lot about what makes good art.”

In addition to not requiring previous artistic ability, digital arts classes are accessible to students without a great deal of coding ability.

“Unlike traditional CS classes, [‘3D Digital Modeling’] requires no coding ability and very little computer knowledge even,” he said. “I would say that as long as you can move a mouse and click on things and read, you’ll be one hundred percent okay with taking this class, as long as you’re willing to put in the work.”

This accessibility is what gives the program of study such broad appeal. Computer science professor Lorie Loeb, the director of digital arts at Dartmouth, said the program is working to increase collaboration and crossover across departments.

“We’re really trying hard to be as interdisciplinary as possible,” Loeb said. “So students in studio art are welcome to come and use our computers, and get help on things. We’re really working with the faculty and staff in studio art and film and theater to coordinate and cooperate as much as we can.”

Studio art professor Karolina Kawiaka, who teaches a course in digital drawing, also emphasized the diverse array of students who participate in the digital arts program.

“My classes in digital art have no prerequisites, so I get students from many departments, including engineering and computer science,” Kawiaka said. “They take that knowledge and integrate it with the different other areas of art that are offered.”

Students who participate in these courses spend countless hours in the studio working on their projects, for the digital arts program is also one of the most hands-on at Dartmouth. They are guided by faculty who are at the peak of their field, such as computer science professor Patricia Hannaway, who teaches a computer animation course. Hannaway was the senior animator for the character “Gollum” in “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” in addition to various other film credits.

Computer science professor Wojciech Jarosz, who teaches a course in computer graphics, has done work on Disney’s “Tangled,” “Frozen,” and “Big Hero 6.” The experience of professors such as these is valuable in classes in which students are taught the programs used to create famous animated films.

“It’s really cool to literally be taught the program that the professionals are using,” Luo said. “It really just shows how much of a hands on department and program it is.”

There is no limit to the variety of projects students create through involvement with the digital arts program. Music professor Michael Casey, who teaches several digital arts classes in the computer science and music departments, named some of the interesting projects he has come across in his time teaching digital arts students.

“I’ve had students who have done sculpture, and the sculpture’s been interactive in the sense that it has code behind it that will detect when someone’s moving or close to the sculpture, and then it will react in some way,” Casey said. “I’ve had students in music who make digital musical instruments and then play them in a performance.”

Loeb also said she has seen a wide array of student projects.

“A lot of students work to make a short animated film that they write, and they do all the modeling, animate it, and they render it out and they model it,” Loeb said. “Some students do virtual reality games, or regular video games. Some people use engineering to build interactive drawing machines. It’s quite cool, the range of things people make in class.”

Every spring, the digital arts program puts on an expo called the Digital Arts Exhibition in which student projects are put on display. Loeb said the ingenuity of a program like digital arts is that it combines such wildly different fields.

“Any time you mix two fields like that, art and technology, you really are at the cutting edge,” Loeb said. “Does the computer become a tool for making art, or does art become a tool for understanding the computer?”

Casey attributed the uniqueness of digital arts to its ability to combine the intangible with the tangible.

“We are finding more and more ways for the digital to become the actual, the real,” Casey said. “There may be code behind an artwork or a piece of engineering design, but at the end of the day it’s something physical, in the world, that is being manipulated or controlled. There’s a 3D object that is being made ... Movement in air that you hear. It’s not just about being behind the scenes anymore. It’s more and more about things in the real world.”

This connection between observation and physical creation is something that students also have noticed. Lindsey Hodel ’19, who is also pursuing the computer science major modified with digital arts, said her experience with animating human models has made here more aware of the way people move in real life.

“We had to be observant of what things look like in real life, because if you understand what happens in real life, than you can animate it more easily,” Hodel said. “Even just the way people walk, because you have to look at walk cycles. So now I notice the different walk cycles that people have in real life.”

Ultimately, the most influential thing about digital arts at Dartmouth is the way students and faculty have taken this connection between the real and the virtual and applied it to foster positive change in the wider world.

“There are a lot of ways that people are building virtual reality and augmented reality experiences, both for games but also to help people deal with PTSD or stress, or those kinds of applications,” Loeb said. “It’s an innovative use of technology and art to help impact people’s lives.”

At Dartmouth, students and faculty have taken the paradox that is digital arts and used its apparent disconnect to create art that brings people together, whether that be through film, music, sculpture or countless other mediums. They have brought that which seems intangible to life, and they have innovated at every step along the way.