At MAGIC Center, David Long balances student opportunities with professional work

A year ago this month, David L. Long was standing at a podium showing off Rochester Institute of Technology’s newest toy – MAGIC Spell Studios, a state-of-the-art studio for creating video games, movies and all kinds of media.

David Long
David Long

It would have been hard for Long, as a student of chemical engineering in Texas in the 1990s, to imagine that he’d be the director of a film science center and studio at a university in New York 20 years later.

It might have even been hard back then to imagine the need for such a center.  MAGIC Center, the building, houses the film-and-animation and game-design departments. It also houses a business, known as MAGIC Spell Studios, that makes available studio facilities to entrepreneurs who might, in turn, provide learning and job opportunities for students.

“The facility is literally what Rochester needed as one of the tools of getting on the map,” said filmmaker Aaron Gordon, principal of Optic Sky Productions. Rochesterians will be familiar with his work, if not him, because he created the Wegmans 2Go advertisements that are running on television and social media channels right now. He used the studios at the MAGIC Center to create Cleopatra’s Nile, Mona Lisa’s Italy and the surface of the moon.

“Aaron turned 7,000 square feet in our sound stage into 7,000 square feet of the moon. They built a lunar lander. They worked with a prop company that has a full, functioning space suit,” Long said. And what they didn’t do? Farm that stuff out to New York or Los Angeles.

The MAGIC facilities woo professionals, but they are also available for students to use before the pros, and with the pros.

“In arts,” Long said, “there aren’t these giant formal co-op programs in big legacy programs. If you want experience in these disciplines, you’ve actually got to get on a set. You’ve got to get into post-production as an apprentice. You’ve got to go and work on real freelance projects.”

Gordon said Long is the perfect person to head this center, because of his technical knowledge, and understanding of the importance of collaboration in emerging media fields, and his ability to predict emerging job trends.

Long, 44, has also achieved some national status in the industry. He was named a fellow of the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers in 2017.

The two met when Gordon, a 2013 graduate of RIT, was getting his film degree. Schooled in the artistic side of filmmaking, he turned to Long and his motion picture engineering students to help with the technical aspects of his films.

The one aspect of the MAGIC director’s job that Long might have imagined 20 years ago was the academic setting. Growing up in Oklahoma, he had witnessed his grandfather moving back and forth between jobs in the food industry and teaching and researching food science at universities.

“I really liked taking advantage of both. I knew my career would end in academia,” Long said recently in his office on the second floor of the MAGIC Center. MAGIC, by the way, stands for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity.

Long holds up his academic and career path, which included working at Eastman Kodak Co. for a decade, as an example for students to consider. Despite the career-oriented degrees many get at schools like RIT, Long says students should understand that what they’re training for might not be what they end up doing for a career eventually, and they shouldn’t stress about that.

“At the end of the four years of undergraduate, you’re not done and you’ve not defined your career trajectory explicitly,” Long said.

He admits to not being particularly passionate about his major, chemical engineering, but his bachelor’s degree in that subject helped him find his first job where he could start to define his passion. Also, “It gave me the core skills that weren’t so engineering-specific,” such as problem-solving, he said.

For nine of the 10 years Long was at Kodak, his title was imaging scientist, and he became an expert in motion picture science. Gordon credits Long with the science behind the film stock that defined filmmaking for seven years in the 2000s.

While at Kodak, Long used his educational benefits to obtain a master’s degree at the University of Rochester in materials science. Then, he said, “in 2007, this wonderfully serendipitous thing happened:” RIT posted a job as chairman of the motion picture sciences. “Too many good things were falling in my lap at the same time,” Long said.

The opportunity allowed him to do the kind of research he hadn’t been able to undertake at Kodak, and he could advance in his field without having to relocate his family, which then included two tiny children. It even shortened his commute. There was just one thing Long had to negotiate – the latitude to embark on a doctorate in color science. He completed the degree at RIT in 2015, three years before he was appointed head of the new MAGIC center.

At a technical institute cum research university famous for its career preparation programs, Long stands out a bit by telling students to think more broadly than the degree program they enter at RIT.

“The reputation of RIT as a career school is fantastic to attract attention and attract applicants,” Long said. “I think we’ve done a better and better job, especially with President (David) Munson lately, of communicating once we’ve got you here — let’s tell you what it’s really about. It’s about becoming a better world citizen, it’s about exploring outside your major.”

Long’s an even odder duck compared to advisers in other film programs, some of which advise skipping an academic degree altogether to get training that can result in an immediate job in the industry. But he has his eye on the longer game, involving creating a local film industry thriving in Rochester and not just feeding into the coastal scenes.

“We of course want a lot of high fliers to go to the coasts, to elevate our reputation. But we want a healthy fraction of our community to stick around here and to continue to elevate the media discipline in this part of the country,” he said.  “We’ve got the sound stage, post-production, a movie theater, all these things that are critical to a successful media production ecosystem in a market.”

Teams of students who want to create media — perhaps a film, perhaps a game — are able to gain real world experience and business experience at RIT.

“A film team or a game team wants to make a media experience…..That is the seed for the idea for a business. These students are actually founding their own studio or their own creative services company,” Long said. “These students don’t need to flee to the coasts to operate their business. We can show them they can be successful here.”

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David Long

Title: Director of MAGIC Center and MAGIC Spell Studios, Rochester Institute of Technology

Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, University of Texas, Austin, 1997; master’s degree in materials science, University of Rochester, 2001; Ph.D. in color science, RIT, 2015

Age: 44

Residence: Victor

Family: Wife, Karen; daughter Morgan, 15; and son Garrett, 12

Activities: photography, woodworking, shepherding his kids to numerous youth activities

Quote: “At the end of the four years of undergraduate, you’re not done and you’ve not defined your career trajectory explicitly.”




Recent RIT grads create Woodstock anniversary exhibit

Six recent graduates of Rochester Institute of Technology can’t say they were there at the original Woodstock concert 50 years ago.

RIT students, including Grace Annese, right, built a video exhibit at the museum for Woodstock in Bethel before their recent graduation. (RIT photo by David Long)
RIT students, including Grace Annese, right, built a video exhibit at the museum for Woodstock in Bethel before their recent graduation. (RIT photo by David Long)

But they created an interactive video exhibit that will help others look back at that culture-shifting concert on its 50th anniversary.

The six motion picture science students created a custom video kiosk for “We Are Golden: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival and Aspirations for a Peaceful Future,” an exhibit on display at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. The nonprofit museum is at the National Register Historic Site of the Woodstock festival, about 90 miles northwest of New York City.

“We Are Golden” will be on display through December, but the museum will have special activities to celebrate the concert’s golden anniversary Aug. 16-18, including a series of concerts by Ringo Starr, Santana and John Fogerty.

The opportunity for RIT students to participate in building the exhibit came about after Andrew R. Jacobson, a university trustee who grew up next to Yasgur farm in Bethel, introduced the team to Wade Lawrence, director and curator of the Museum at Bethel Woods.

The students had just a few months to create videos drawing from hundreds of hours of historical footage. They traveled the four hours to Bethel multiple times and worked under the direction of MAGIC Spell Studios Director David Long and Associate Professor Ricky Figueroa in RIT’s School of Film and Animation.

“We were given about 100 transcripts to read through which we pulled quotes from to organize the stories and we edited the videos from there,” said Grace Annese, one of the recent graduates. The students relied on Long’s woodworking experience to help them construct the wooden kiosks for the videos.

“We also had to program the kiosk buttons to play each of the videos,” Annese said. “Making sure that they will work for months without malfunctioning was definitely one of our key challenges.”

The team was invited to a private opening of the exhibit, where they saw the exhibit in use.

“Nowadays our work is uploaded to YouTube or Facebook and you only get to see comments,” Annese said. “It was very rewarding to actually witness people enjoying our work.”

The other members of the team were recent graduates Trevor Brashich, Cameron Calandra, Emmanuel Palad, Andrew Sevigny and Oscar Estrada-Torrejon.

A team from the MAGIC Center is designing a social media experience to help visitors share their visit, Long said.

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RIT unwraps MAGIC Spell Studios, called a future hub for game design and film

You might call it Hollywood East. Or the Big Apple North. But the dozens of people who turned out for the grand opening Tuesday call the new building at Rochester Institute of Technology the MAGIC Spell Studios.

The 52,000-square-foot, $31 million building contains five classrooms, a sound stage, two-dimensional and three-dimensional animation studios, and two movie theaters. It’s all to help teach and commercialize the work of budding game designers, animators and filmmakers trained at RIT.

The new MAGIC Spell Studios at RIT. Photo provided by RIT
The new MAGIC Spell Studios at RIT. Photo provided by RIT

Elected officials praised the project as a giant leap forward in making the Finger Lakes Region a film-making and game-design capital, which will both create jobs and attract students and businesses who want to use the state-of-the-art-facilities. Forbes Media has already established an outpost in the partner studio space, using the help of students and faculty to design and test a publishing app used by the company’s reporters to file stories.

“It’s exciting to play the same game that is played in Hollywood and New York City. Before this building, we weren’t doing that,” said David Long, director of MAGIC Spell Studios.

Though the building has been in use since August, this week’s grand opening was its public debut, hosting scores of elected and economic development officials, along with business people and professors who teach the arts and sciences behind game design, animation and film-making.

The MAGIC program (it stands for Media, Arts, Games, Interactive, and Creativity) has been in existence for five years but was limited in facilities, Long said.

Nevertheless, budding game designers such as Noah Ratcliff, a fourth year student from Columbus, Ohio, have created fledgling companies to further the games they designed at RIT.  Ratcliff, along with fellow students Aidan Markham of Rochester and Sam Cammarata of Holland, Erie County, have created an award-winning game that plays on tablets and mobile phones based on delivering virtual garbage plates to customers.

Ratcliff told the audience of about 100 people gathered for the opening that development of Crazy Platez was helped along at every step by MAGIC, from direct support to connecting the students to the people and resources they needed.

“They pay us to work full time on our project,” he said. Crazy Platez is in beta testing now and Ratcliff expects it will be released to the public by the end of this year by his company, Aesthetic Labs, LLC.

Long said Ratcliff is participating in RIT’s Co-Up program, which provides employment and guidance for students who are creating their own businesses instead of working for existing companies.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, winking at her pun about MAGIC, said “this is really a game changer.” She reflected on how many upstate residents have watched the demise of the manufacturing economy that used to power cities such as Buffalo and Rochester. “This will become an economic powerhouse. This has unbelievable potential,” she said. “When you’re a smart, young person, this is the place you’ll want to come.”

NYS Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle reflected on the time some years ago when former RIT President William Destler and other university officials met with him to seek state funding for new facilities. Morelle told them, “This is good, but we need a ‘wow’ project.” That set off a twinkle in Destler’s eye that became this week’s MAGIC studios.

“Students who will be here for generations will owe a great debt to you,” he said to Destler, who attended the opening.

The project was put together with $13.5 million in state funding, and $17.9 combined from Dell, Cisco Systems, The Wegman Family Charitable Foundation and RIT Trustee Austin McChord.

RIT President David Munson said 50 million Americans play video games and 225,000 people are employed in that industry.

“We intend to grow more,” Munson said. “I’m convinced MAGIC Spell Studios will make the Finger Lakes an industry hub.”

The sound stage in the MAGIC Spell Studios is 7,000 square feet. Photo supplied by RIT.
The sound stage in the MAGIC Spell Studios is 7,000 square feet. Photo supplied by RIT.

Long said the game design and film and animation programs are expanding to take advantage of the facilities. Currently the university has about 1000 game design majors and 400 film and animation majors, but starting with the current freshman class, that enrollment is expanding by 30 percent over the next four years. Other majors such as new media and art will undoubtedly make use of the studio, too, he said.

MAGIC is partnering with a number of businesses such as Forbes Media.

Students gain valuable real-world experience from such residential partners, and “partners are here because of direct access to the students and faculty,” Long said. Companies partnering with RIT have a talent pool of creative students to draw from, often at much less expense than assembling a team in New York City, he said.

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