Just a few years ago, the parents of Ningyu Mao encouraged their teenage daughter to consider studies in computer science. Heeding her parents’ advice, she enrolled at nearby Peking University, taking up the subject as her major. With just a handful of female students in the program, Mao realized that the path her parents had suggested was far from the norm. But that didn’t prevent her from excelling.

Fast forward: The accomplished undergrad is eager to continue her education. Searching online, she discovers Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. ETC would allow her to merge her computer-science background with entertainment, which she finds “uniquely appealing.” Mao is accepted and, with her parents’ blessing, travels from home for the first time in her life, more than 6,000 miles, to begin the two-year program.

For the summer between her studies, she wants to find an ideal internship and has a particular one in mind. It’s on the West Coast and offered by the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The group handles industry-wide research projects, preserves the history of motion-picture technology, and educates professionals and the public about the role of technology in movie-making.

The application process is rigorous and involves submission of formal demo reels and professional recommendations. In fact, only two candidates are selected each summer for the competitive 12-week program. Interns work on site at a Hollywood studio, collaborating with industry professionals on the latest digital motion-picture technology.

Hard at work in a programming room on campus, Mao receives the call she’s been waiting for. The academy offers her one of the two internships. (The other one goes to a Clemson University student.) Mao accepts on the spot. When she tells her parents, they’re thrilled.

In Hollywood, she is paired with Rhythm & Hues, a special-effects studio. There, she works on in-house production tools, writing code for an iPad playback system. Her work allows special-effects supervisors and movie directors to share clips back and forth, provide comments, and play back scenes.

In addition to the hours she clocks on the actual internship, Mao has the chance to go on private tours of some of the top movie studios in the world, including Skywalker, Pixar, and Paramount studios.

Now back at CMU, Mao says Peking will always be home, but Hollywood may be where she winds up.
—Lisa Kay Davis (DC’09)