While learning how to play violin as a child in Annandale, Daniel Sierra would never have guessed that music would get him this far.
“The violin was not really my instrument,” Sierra said with a laugh. “I was more into video games.”
A winding path eventually led Sierra to an unlikely marriage of these two childhood hobbies. His unique perception of both music and computer graphics has netted him a Student Academy Award.
Sierra is one of 15 winners of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Student Academy Awards. The 26-year-old created his film “Oscillate” while a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
The film combines music he composed with three-dimensional computer animations he created as his thesis project for his Master of Fine Arts in Computer Art.
His interest in digital art was first piqued in high school, when he became fascinated with electronic music, a genre very different than anything he had heard on the radio or could play on the violin.
As an undergraduate at New York University, Sierra started out as a music technology major, hoping to learn more about how these sounds were made. He soon switched to computer science, realizing he was most interested in how technology created art of any form - from music to the animation of his favorite video games.
“I never had a particular vision of what I wanted to do,” Sierra said. “But I knew I wanted to see how all these elements could combine.”
That led him to graduate school and to “Oscillate.” The film creates intricate abstract patterns out of sine waves, the sort you would usually see on a graphing calculator in a high school calculus class.
Like the violin, Sierra had no particular passion for math as a student in Fairfax County, where he attended Bailey’s Elementary School and Poe Middle School, or in high school at Washington International School.
“When I was younger, physics and math would go in one ear and out the other,” Sierra said. “But when I found out that these subjects determined what we could see on movie screens, it made me fascinated with how it all connects.”
Throughout college and graduate school, Sierra ended up working through music and math with reverse-engineering. He would think up what he wanted to hear from the speakers or see the screen and then go out and learn how to do it, rather than building from an already-established knowledge base.
“If I could, I’d go back and learn it all again, and really pay attention this time,” Sierra said. “It would make my understanding of this so much deeper.”
His method, though, did provide a unique perspective, one that led him to this point, getting ready to accept a Student Academy Award. It also led him to his current job as a technical artist with Microsoft in Seattle.
“Now my main instrument is the computer,” Sierra said. “Here, mixing of technology and art, this is where I’m meant to be.”
The awards ceremony takes place in Los Angeles on Saturday at the DGA Theater in Hollywood. The medal placements - gold, silver or bronze - in each of the five categories will be announced at the ceremony. Sierra is one of just two winners in the “Alternative” category.