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Engineering that Dazzles and Excites

by John Varrasi, ASME Public Information

When Katie Correll was ten, she attended a performance of The Lion King on Broadway and sat with wide-eyed fascination as stage floors shifted, props dropped down from the ceiling, and varying colors of light pulsed to words and music in perfect synchrony.

That trip to Broadway would turn out to be a defining experience for Correll, instilling in the girl an interest in theatrical technology and setting in motion an engineering career designing stage sets for entertainment venues. In March, Correll began a job as associate engineer at Universal Studios Florida.

“I had been a performer for most of my life, but seeing how much influence machinery and technology had on a performance showed me a different path I could take in entertainment,” said Correll, an ASME member who is active in the Students & Career Development sector.  “This path was much more intriguing to me.”

Puppet Maker

Breaking into the field, Correll realized, would require determination, hard work, and focus.  Following her freshman year at The Cooper Union, the mechanical engineering student landed an internship in New York City’s theatre district.  Among her initial projects, Correll created puppets for The Addams Family, which in 2010 was enjoying a successful run on Broadway.  Over the next few years, Correll sought out other local internship opportunities in the field of puppet making, and was soon broadening her scope and experience to motion pictures and television production.  She even designed puppets for Sesame Street. “The work I did with puppets was invaluable,” said Correll.  “I had the hands-on experience in designing mechanisms that would provide the kind of movement that was required for performance.”

In 2012, Correll enrolled in a master’s program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.  There she focused on robotics and, at the conclusion of her degree program, created a stage production in which a robot and human performed together in a theatrical setting.  The performance leveraged the work of robotics students with students in the performing arts program to create a system of puppeteering the robots’ gestures to be directed similarly to a human actor.

While working on her master’s degree, Correll found other jobs and internships, advancing her engineering knowledge and broadening her experience into the realm of high-tech machine learning systems.  In her final semester at Carnegie Mellon, Correll joined Disney Research as an intern, performing research on robotic continuum manipulation.

From Puppets to Hard Rock

After earning her master’s in May 2014, Correll was hired at Disney World to work in the New Technology Group.  Since then, she has held a number of jobs in industries ranging from concert set design to television and theatrical stages.  Correll’s resume includes stages for Madonna, Taylor Swift, AC/DC, Disneyland Paris, and Cirque du Soleil.

“One thing I find thrilling about entertainment engineering is every project is unique,” said Correll.  “No project is like any other, so we are continually innovating and problem solving.”

Correll also enjoys the lack of routine and also the fast pace of her work.  Typically, she will work for no longer than three months on a stage design, before moving on to a new project. Indeed, working in entertainment does come with a fair amount of fame and visibility, which Correll finds especially rewarding.  “I really enjoy seeing the positive public reaction to my creative designs in social media,” she said.

Correll respects her career choice and is happy to have embarked on a unique and nontraditional engineering career pathway.

“All through high school and college, teachers and professors talked about careers in fields such as aerospace, HVAC and automotive engineering, with zero mention of my interests,” she explained.  “I knew that what I really wanted to do was to work in entertainment technology, but found that there was no prescribed route.”

For Correll, success came through hard work, good fortune, and single-minded pursuit of a passion.  Her story is a lesson in efficient career preparation.  In addition to the internships during college, Correll networked extensively, sending out dozens of queries to people she met and visiting set designers at work on a project.  Seeking to expand her knowledge and skill set, she interspersed her regular studies with classes in art and architecture, and enrolled in summer school at various institutions to keep current in set design.  “I wanted to learn everything I could about my field, while trying to devise my own curriculum to prepare me for my future career,” said Correll.  

Universal Studios will be the ideal playground for Correll.  The world-famous entertainment theme park destination that each day brings fantasy to life through multidimensional thrill rides, interactive video, and stylized stage props will provide the engineer with the platform to hone her craft.  In the months and years ahead, Correll may very well design sets that make children stare in wide-eyed amazement, like she did as a ten-year-old at The Lion King.

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