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Teaching Themed Entertainment : Interview with Don Marinelli

Don Marinelli was a compelling presenter at SATE (Story-Architecture-Technology-Entertainment conference, hosted in September by the Themed Entertainment Association 2008. He spoke of the flourishing and unorthodox curriculum at the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and the rewards of challenging creative young people to invent and reinvent the future of the themed entertainment industry. Teaching Themed Entertainment at Pittsburgh ETC Interview with Don Marinelli

ETC is a joint initiative between the School of Computer Science and the College of Fine Arts, specializing in all manner of digital arts and entertainment. Marinelli co-founded ETC with the late Randy Pausch, a pioneer in the industry who became an Internet celebrity through his inspiring Last Lecture. Following Marinelli’s SATE talk, Judith Rubin fought her way through a crowd of admirers to pose a few questions to him.

Q. The culture of the architectural profession has been a target of criticism at this SATE conference, with some of the criticism coming from architects themselves. In your opinion, how can architects be rehabilitated?

A. I would start by striving against the irony of most architects being secluded in iconic buildings; they seem to be the most compartmentalized human beings I have ever encountered. They need to share space with diverse thinkers. They also need to study subjects other than primarily the work of architects who came before them. This establishes a stultifying precedence to their work. Even the revolutions in architecture are regurgitations. Architects should be given a curriculum that includes biology, theatre, anatomy, music, graphics, and exploration.

Q. Why do you love robots?

A. Because they allow us to emulate God through completely technical means. Gardeners, farmers, painters, teachers, and many others also emulate God, but do so through naturally-mediated mediums. When you build a robot you have accepted not only the invitation from God to be God-like, but also possess the daring to do so through mediums that rely on humanity for their creation. In other words, you can’t go digging for structural steel and you won’t find transistors hanging from trees. Designing and building robots is truly the young bird flying away from the nest.

Q. What have been some of the most productive academic battles at Carnegie Mellon?

A. One involved establishing a very free curriculum over the concerns of traditional academics who believed any program needed to have myriad and multiple courses. It was as if they were working for a transcript company and were getting paid by the course listed. Interestingly enough, resistance here came from the College of Fine Arts academic council; not the School of Computer Science. The second notable battle involved finances and administrative structure. Universities are corporations, albeit ostensibly ‘not-for-profit. Still, there can oftentimes be the same stultifying bureaucracy one finds in government. So, we demanded to serve directly under the Provost and not answer to any academic Deans. (In my humble opinion, “Dean” has to Teaching Themed Entertainment at Pittsburgh ETC Interview with Don Marinelli be one of the most useless positions existing in a university.)
Q. What would you like the themed entertainment industry to most remember and appreciate about Randy Pausch?

A. For the most part, Randy truly walked the talk. He reached out to different disciplines. He was extremely humble (in his own way) in what he *knew* and what he didn’t know. He had tremendous faith and trust in the intelligence, creativity, and responsibility of students to work and help each other. He was no fan of bureaucracy and rules – save for the “rule” of individual responsibility and the importance of teamwork. He viewed teaching as a mentor/guide relationship instead of the professor spouting forth information that could just as easily be gleaned from a textbook. He had joy, and desired nothing more than for others to have joy. Randy was more than a “Tigger”: he was a child who wished he was Tigger.

Q. How can older members of the themed entertainment industry support and/or get involved with the ETC?

A. Be there to help young people realize ideas. This can be done by visiting and speaking with them at schools and clubs, by viewing and reviewing the various projects undertaken, by providing constructive feedback and direction, by conveying dreams and aspirations for ways in which technology and entertainment/education/experience can positively impact people. Make of yourself a willing and eager “tester” of new technologies. Oh, and most importantly, remember to send ramen noodle care packages to the ETC so the students can eat.

Q. Who do we most need to bring back from the dead in the next six months?

A. Right now I’d say Franklin Roosevelt.
Q. What most concerns you about the use of technology – or lack thereof  – in our society?

A. I am very concerned about the growing chasm between the social comportment and intellectual expectations of our youngest children, who I consider to be the true 21st century digital natives, and the regressive, 19th century structure of American K-12 education. Our schools have become Frontier-land theme parks while our domestic environment seems on fast forward towards the Jetsons. At some point young people will rightfully rebel and refuse to go to schools that insult rather than stimulate their intelligences. Interactive technology is the lingua franca of young people today the world over. Yet, it is just about completely absent from the classroom and educational environment. We need to tackle this disparity immediately by charging certain companies with the responsibility of creating interactive digital curricula that are appealing, stimulating, thought-provoking, and truly educational for 21st century digital natives.

Image: The ETC building in Pittsburgh

See our other SATE features: 
Themed Entertainment: Live Interaction with Electrosonic’s Chris Conte 
The Joyful Architect: Al Cross Talks about Themed Attraction Design

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