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.”




RIT represented on multiple levels at international game conference

Rochester Institute of Technology is making a splash at the largest game development conference in the world this week, with more than 100 RIT students, faculty, alumni and staff in attendance.

Game Developers Conference 2019, at the Moscone Conference Center in San Francisco, attracts some 28,000 attendees who demonstrate, try out and win awards for video games. The event attracts both students and industry leaders looking to gain expertise and feedback or promote their technology-based games.

RIT is involved in a number of ways, starting with five graduate students who arrived at the event by way of the annual Train Jam, an Amtrak train from Chicago to California that hosted a 53-hour video game building event. The resulting product is available for conference participants to try.

“I feel it’s a great environment to have in-depth conversations about games and all its tangents, since we spend three days traveling on a train,” said Anushka Nair, a game design and development master’s student at RIT.  “It is also a personal challenge to make a game within three days with random people and intermittent internet access.”

Lightless is one of the RIT produced games on display in San Francisco this week. Art supplied by RIT.
Lightless is one of the RIT-produced games on display in San Francisco this week. (RIT)

RIT’s MAGIC Spell Studios is hosting a booth at the conference’s expo, featuring four games that were created or are still in development by students and alumni, including “Ball of Doom,” “Lightless,” “Fragile Equilibrium”  and “Elderberry Trails.” The last one also will be featured at the conference’s Intel University Games Showcase on Thursday. It revolves around a young lumberjack’s journey through cursed woods, where she must deal with Elderberry goo and other obstacles.

“The visual design of the game is really appealing, and we think it will resonate with the audience,” said Jennifer Hinton, assistant director of the MAGIC Center. “The team of students working on this game is passionate and driven and is a great example of what can happen when students from different disciplines work together.”

Tuesday night, RIT plays host at the annual Prototype/Playfest Night, where participants can either play or bring games – video, board and card games – in development to give or receive feedback.

On Friday, RIT student Shawn Liu, a fifth-year game design and development major from San Diego, will share his “Hostile User” game alongside other presenters at a workshop on experimental games.

RIT was recently ranked seventh for its graduate program and eight for its undergraduate program in game design and development internationally by The Princeton Review.

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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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