When Alan Turing kickstarted computer science in 1936 with his paper On Computable Numbers, few envisioned the field's eventual sweeping reach. In those early days, no one could imagine today's ubiquitous portable devices and computer-centric business, communications, and entertainment industries. When computers crossed the public imagination—often through motion pictures—they typically posed a menace, threatening to render human labor obsolete (Desk Set, 1957), override human decision-making (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968), or take over the world (Colossus: The Forbin Project, 1970).
Today, Hollywood takes a more nuanced view of computing. From science fiction classics like Tron and The Matrix to true stories about how tech giants like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs founded Apple and Microsoft in Pirates of Silicon Valley, the young computer programmer trope infiltrates many of the best movies of the 20th century. There's even a film called The Imitation Game (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) that recounts how Turing broke the German Enigma Code for the Allied forces during World War Two.
Computer science does more for film than drive storylines. More and more, computing is responsible for the very images we enjoy when we settle in with our giant popcorn bins and soda buckets, and for the marketing campaigns that brought us to the theater (or home screen).
So, how has computer science impacted movies? This article covers:
Without computer science, Mark Zuckerberg would never have created Facebook, and David Fincher and Jesse Eisenberg would never have teamed up on The Social Network. But computer science does more for Hollywood than provide main characters. It has completely changed the movie industry both creatively and from a business standpoint. Without computer science, Neo could never have even gotten into the source code, much less dodged the bullet.
Computer science has drastically changed the way animators work on movies and video games, creating a massive computer-generated imagery (CGI) industry. Thanks to CGI advances, visual effects grow more convincing and easier to create every year.
You do not need a degree in computer science to work as an animator or special effects artist; a degree in animation or just self-teaching can get you there. However, if you want to develop and update the programs software artists use, you'll need to become a computer scientist. The article How a CS Professor Brought New Life to Toy Story explains how Theodore Kim combined his passion for computer science and art to develop new animation techniques used in Toy Story 4. That super-realistic rope on Woody's back? That was based on Kim's work.
George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic is one of the biggest contributors to the field, employing artists and computer scientists to develop new techniques. Thanks to work by Industrial Light & Magic and other key contributors, software simulation has essentially replaced hand-drawn animation.
Computer science plays a substantial role in marketing, and not just in the film industry. Stories drive films, but revenues drive the film industry (without which: no films). Backing a flop can hurt a production company, not to mention the careers of those who produced it. Computer science can make the marketing and evaluation process more efficient.
Computer scientists create and utilize algorithms to identify target audiences and determine where advertising money should go. According to a Tech Republic article, Netflix utilizes the programming language Python throughout its algorithms for everything from operations management to identifying which projects to support.
Computer science also helps with distribution. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu have completely disrupted the traditional formula. Today, 71 percent of adult Americans would rather watch a movie at home on a streaming platform than in the theater, according to a Civic Science study. Platforms employ machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze your data and suggest new titles.
A computer science master's degree lays the foundation for a career in computing theory and practice. Master's programs teach fundamentals across computer science functions so that graduates understand not only their piece of a project but also the big picture. Further, by learning computing theory, students prepare themselves for all the changes and advances to come, because they understand the foundation on which future developments will be built.
It is possible to start a career in computer science without a graduate degree. A significant talent shortage in the field creates plenty of opportunities; however, that shortage results from the dearth of capable computer scientists to fill the roles. A master's degree in computer science provides the necessary skills while preparing future tech geeks for short- and long-term success.
If you have a bachelor's degree in computer science, you may be able to complete a full-time Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) program in as little as one year. Part-time study will prolong the process, as will the need to fulfill foundational requirements if your undergraduate major was not comp sci or comp-sci adjacent. Some part-time students take as long as five years to earn their MSCS. How long it takes you depends on how heavy a course load you can handle.
Admissions requirements vary by school, but most look for experienced applicants. For Stevens Institute of Technology and Southern Methodist University, you need a relevant undergraduate degree such as computer science or computer engineering. However, both also consider career changers who meet equivalency requirements.
Computer science curricula typically build upon what you'd study in a computer science bachelor's degree program. You'll continue learning programming languages such as Java, C/C++, and Python. Advanced programming in a master's program often includes working with UNIX operating systems and advanced I/O (input/output). You'll also continue working with algorithm design (like dynamic programming) and database management (like key references and database design).
Many CS master's programs culminate in a capstone or thesis project. While there are many capstone/thesis optional schools, completing one can showcase your experiences to potential employers. For those hoping to land creative computer science jobs in the film industry, you may want to focus your capstone on building excellent graphic systems. Those looking to go into business may focus on building algorithms and models.
Many programs allow students to specialize. Specializations can include big data, cyber security, and network systems. For those pursuing entertainment, game design may be the best specialization for you—it can also lead to an animation career.
Two recent job postings, one a FX technical director for Pixar and the other a CG supervisor for Industrial Light and Magic, seek applicants with graphics experience. Computer scientists can qualify for both positions, which require programming experience (C/C++ or Python) and working with UNIX/LINUX operating systems. A game design background can give you a leg up.
In the University of Southern California game development specialization, students take courses about 3D rendering, animation, machine learning, interactivity, and mixed reality. The Master of Interactive Technology (MIT) in Digital Game Development at Southern Methodist University covers areas like game design and theory and provides hands-on experience. Students work in teams to develop gameplay that meets industry standards.
Top master's in computer science programs according to US News & World Report include:
Well-regarded online options can be found at:
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