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New digital arts degree fills student, industry demand

Shelby Thurman, a junior from Kennesaw, Georgia, is one of a handful of students who already have declared the new digital arts major in the first semester it became available.

Responding to student demand and a need for digital artists in the Southeast's growing film and video game industries, the University of North Georgia (UNG) Department of Visual Arts has launched a new academic program in digital arts.

"This program was driven by interest that we've gotten in the area and also in terms of economic development, which is an important ingredient," said Jon Mehlferber, associate professor of visual arts. "We want students to go out and be employed, ideally in the field that they studied in school. This is an area that's growing and it's necessary."

3D printing
A digital arts student examines a piece he created
using 3D design and 3D printing technology.

Launched this semester, the new Bachelor of Arts with a concentration in digital arts is available on the Dahlonega Campus, but a minor in digital arts is available to students on both the Gainesville and Dahlonega campuses. New courses to support the degree include computer graphics, animation, character rigging and digital visual effects. The program compliments the Bachelor of Science in film and digital media offered in UNG's Department of Communication, Media & Journalism.

"When you watch a film, much of what you see doesn't exist," Mehlferber said. "It is a virtual world – from landscape to props to even characters – that was created by artists on the computer and integrated into the film."

Tucker and Woody Martin, identical twin brothers from Dahlonega, Georgia, are among the first UNG students to declare the major in digital arts. The brothers, who are juniors this year, became interested in game design after watching a documentary about the making of a popular video game.

"We realized people could make games for a living instead of just playing them and thought 'Yes! This is what we want to do,'" Tucker Martin said.

Initially, the brothers just tried to figure out animation on their own, Woody Martin said.

"Now we're finally getting some formal experience and learning from people who have been doing it for 20 years," he said. "I feel like I'm learning how to push myself further."

While the digital medium provides a way to create objects that couldn't exist in real life, it still requires understanding of the basic artistic skills of drawing, painting and sculpting, said David Clifton, assistant professor of digital arts.

"The computer doesn't do anything for you, it's just a very, very advanced and incredibly complex tool," Clifton said. "The thing that I love about it is that complexity can be difficult sometimes, but the beauty of it is there is pretty much nothing you can't make. There's really no limit."

Shelby Thurman, a junior from Kennesaw, Georgia, is interested in pursuing the field of animation with her degree in digital arts, but also produces fine art pieces on the computer.

"You don't see many women animators in general, especially 3D animation because it's very involved in the math and sciences and computers," Thurman said. "But it's a way to combine artwork and computers, which has always been my first love."

Digital artistry also is used in real-world applications like creating realistic simulations for training in military, medical and industrial fields or designing products.

Mehlferber's courses in 3D design and printing task students with improving products. In an ongoing project, he also works with UNG's Department of Physical Therapy to create assistive devices for children with disabilities.

"We're designing 3D objects on the computer, but we're looking at and focusing on how to realize that virtual object as a real thing," Mehlferber said. "When you move from the virtual to the real, there are all kinds of issues you have to deal with, even just how best to print it and what materials to use."

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