Article Featured in Roll Magazine

Peekskill’s Center for the Digital Arts, at Westchester Community College
by M.R. Smith

No matter what format you are using to peruse this article in this magazine, you are seeing the product of people fiddling about with computers, using the most up-to-date software possible to communicate, do research, design and edit content, wrangle and manipulate images, and present it all in a context the printing company—or website—can make into this thing you hold in your hand. And it’s a pretty safe bet that if you are interested in working in media, be it website and game design, music, art, cinema, television, internet, what have you—you’re going to be going digital, someway, somehow.

Though the region is blessed with numerous opportunities for quality educational experiences, one regional community college stands out in terms of offering an array of media studies designed to keep pace with modern digital technology. Westchester Community College (WCC)—with its main campus in Valhalla, NY—has ten branches around the county, each with its own special focus. But, along with its standard two-year Associate’s Degree curriculum, the Peekskill branch is the home of the Center for the Digital Arts, a state-of-the-art computer facility and learning environment. Want to learn how to make music, art, videos, 3D animation, websites, phone apps on computers, tablets, and smart phones? Well, who doesn’t?

It doesn’t really look much like a school from the outside, with its storefront façade in downtown Peekskill. More like a waiting room for….something or other. The spacious window-lit lobby of WCC actually looks more like an art gallery, presenting their yearly summer show of artists from around town and the immediate area, and it’s there I’m met by the school’s technical support manager, Lise Prown. Things are quiet at the moment with few classes over the summer. Many staff members are on summer break, so I get the nickel tour without disrupting classes.

“The facility opened in 1994. We kind of caught that first wave of desktop publishing mania, and we’ve expanded from there,” explains Lise, who has been with the school since the beginning. That they have: around 1200 students pass through these halls per semester these days; up to 30 administrators and instructors are on staff. There’s a prodigious amount of computer firepower onsite, with over 100 Apple Mac G5’s full of up-to-date media software, several servers, and high quality printers.

The animation lab is seeing action this summer, as WCC has a summer media camp “pre-college” program for kids 6-16, 10 to 12 kids per class. Students can use digital drawing tablets and light pens to create 2D and 3D animation—using the latest upgrade of the popular Maya program—as well as digital drawings and paintings, and stop animation. Lise comments, “It’s interesting. We’re getting the generation of digitally native, who grew up with a computer, and can find their way through the Internet quite ably. But being able to sit down and focus and do content creation is such a demanding skill.”

Two digital video editing labs allow for HD editing, using Final Cut, After Effects, and Motion Graphics software. Seventeen computer suites fill each room, with both flat-screen and older tube monitors. (Lise has plans to put in a proper video studio, but it will require more building space, not presently available.) The hot thing lately at WCC is game design, thanks to a new program and instructor. Also, Lise has upcoming seminars on smart phone applications and icon design—these have recently become career makers. Another door down is the internet lab, generally known as the busiest place in the building when school is in session.

“I always try to find people in the area who are doing interesting work that’s digitally related.” And Lise does; one such course offered is in “smart phone art,” featuring a Woodstock artist who specializes in it. “But if you look at his photographs, you’d swear they were taken with a Nikon.” Quality photo shot, edited, and transmitted—all on a phone. This is no longer unusual. Lise also has a Foley class on tap: the art of recording sounds and placing them in movie sound tracks to enhance video moments with specialized audio. (Those crunchy punches in Indiana Jones movies? Recorded smashed lettuce heads.) Web design, art direction, cartooning…the computer labs and studios offer unlimited possibilities for exploration.

The music lab has the familiar battalion of metal Mac towers and monitors, but with the addition of piano keyboards, Mboxes (analog to digital interfaces, allowing you to plug your guitar directly into the computer), and pre-amp mixers tucked in as well. Some stations have Kurzweil multi-sound modules. Two turntables with USB outputs allow for vinyl sampling, and industry standards ProTools and Logic are the music software. Next door is an actual recording studio room with computer system, near-field monitors, a Mackie virtual mixing board, a selection of quality microphones, and an anechoic recording room. A photo of Joan Baez in the studio adorns the wall; she stopped in from a show at the nearby Paramount Theatre recently to record an interview.

Traditional art classes—life drawing, watercolor and oil painting—are taught in a multi-purpose studio upstairs, where there are also ten classrooms for the more traditional pedagogy: language, math, science, history, ESL (their Spanish program is very popular). But with a twist. Instead of the old blackboard, chalk, and overhead projector, each room has a whiteboard, a projection screen, and a “smart podium,” where the instructor can access the projector with his/her own computer or an onsite DVD player, and present a PowerPoint enhanced class.

Another feature WCC provides is its “Quick Starts” program: non-credit classes for those who just want to get their heads around some mystery software on their desktops, or a particular application whose mastery is required for their jobs. “They’re geared for working professionals who want to pick up a skill. We have a class for iLife, iPhoto, iMovie….just what your Mac can do. It’s a great class for learning about all this power you have sitting on your desk. Skills you might suddenly need, that you didn’t two years ago. ”

Whether it’s a two-year program, or dropping in for a “Quick Start,” Westchester Community College’s Peekskill branch has an array of digital possibilities. Perhaps it’s time you got to know your computer, tablet, or smart phone a little bit better than it knows you.

The Peekskill extension of the Westchester Community College is located at 27 N. Division St., Peekskill, 914.606.7300. Please visitwww.sunywcc.edu/extension_sites/locations/peekskill for class schedules and more information.