January 30, 2004

An Oscar Winning Professor

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Prof. Stephen R. Marschner ’98, computer science, will receive a technical achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences next month. Marschner is being recognized for the work he has done to improve the simulation of translucency in computer-generated images used in movies, including The Lord of the Rings 2.

“I think that the Academy award for Steve Marschner is both well-deserved and a fantastic achievement,” said Prof. Donald P. Greenberg ’68, director of the computer graphics program.

However, Marschner won’t have an Oscar statuette on display in his office anytime soon. According to the Academy’s website, the Oscars are only handed out for Awards of Merit — such as Best Director — during the broadcasted ceremony. Other awards, such as the technical achievement, are presented at a private ceremony.

The technical achievement award is given out by the governing board, not voted on, “to recognize outstanding innovations in filmmaking equipment and technique,” according to the Academy’s website. The award itself consists of a certificate with the image of an Oscar, describing the innovation and listing the names of its developers.

Marschner will share the award with his two colleagues, Prof. Henrik Wann Jensen, computer graphics, University of California San Diego and Prof. Pat Hanrahan, computer graphics, Stanford. Together, the three authored a paper on the translucency simulation which makes a computer-generated image look more realistic.

“As soon as the paper was out we started getting calls from the studios for help with the details,” Marschner said, “We sort of hit on something that happened to be the next step that people needed in a lot of contexts to get things to look more realistic.”

The studios were quick to incorporate the new technique into many of their popular recent releases. “[This] technology has been adapted rapidly by the movie industry and it was used to simulate the skin on Dobby in Harry Potter 2, and on Arnold in Terminator 3,” Jensen stated on his website. “It was also used to simulate the skin on Gollum in Lord of the Rings 2, and to render skin in Matrix Reloaded.”

“Skin is something people are very interested in [in] the special effects studios because a lot of the things that are hard to do well that we are just starting to do now are living creatures,” Marschner explained.

The technique itself is a way to approximate the effect of light hitting an object. According to Marschner, if light hits an opaque object, it bounces right off and gives the object a hard look. Light hitting a translucent object, however, bounces around beneath the surface before coming back out.

“We had a laser pointer which we’d go around and shine on things to see whether they looked like they might be translucent or not,” Marschner said, demonstrating with a laser pointer first on a piece of paper and then on the skin of his hand. “[It has] the appearance of a spot if I shine it on something like paper, which isn’t very translucent, but … if I shine it on my skin, it really spreads out.”

Marschner also pointed out that the importance and ability to render translucency in computer-generated images was not new.

“The old way to do this would have been to actually follow the path of the light through the medium. So what we did was introduce some approximations that let you just directly understand how much … light is going to get out at a certain point without doing all this extra work,” he explained. That efficiency gives movie makers a practical option for improving the realism of their characters by adding translucency.

“This phenomenon … is applicable to a lot of substances,” explained Greenberg. He added that several other former Cornell computer graphics grad students had gone on to win similar awards for imaging innovation.

“Steve is the fifth, so personally, I’m thrilled,” he said, “I’m very proud of all my students.”

Archived article by Sarah Colby

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