January 29, 2013

C.U. Computer Scientists Win Oscars

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A Cornell professor and two alumni won two distinct Scientific and Technical Achievement Academy Awards for their special-effects generating software. Unlike awards for actors or movies, which are given only for works created the previous year, the Scientific and Technical Achievement awards are given to researchers who have significantly enhanced the process of movie making in general for many movies, sometimes over multiple years. Prof. Doug James, computer science, and Theodore Kim ’01 were part of the research group that developed Wavelet Turbulence for Fluid Simulation software, which allows easier control over the appearance of highly detailed gas simulations, such as smoke or flames. Jeremy Selan ’00 M.S. ’03 also won an Academy Award for creating Katana software, which increases the efficiency of editing complex scenes. Both creations have greatly impacted the field of animation with their widespread and easy use.

Wavelet Turbulence Software

Delicate tendrils of smoke swirl from a house ablaze with flames. A computer graphic artist watches his creation with satisfaction –– what could have taken weeks to complete was finished in a few hours thanks to a new algorithm, Wavelet Turbulence.

Wavelet Turbulence software earned James and Kim an Academy Award for increased and rapid control of gas simulation in many major movies, including Avatar and Kung Fu Panda.

“Wavelet Turbulence allows animators to produce realistic looking fire and smoke simulations without having to wait a long time for high-resolution simulations to get running,” James said.

High resolution simulations, the previous method, take days or weeks to produce final details, and artists have to repeat the entire process if the final image does not turn out well. With Wavelet Turbulence, however, artists can create high-resolution details on a low-resolution grid, which is less expensive and much faster.

With its practicality and efficiency, the software has become widely used at animation companies. According to Kim, the algorithm has become a standard tool to use when modifying a simulation.

Wavelet Turbulence software was also released as an open-source library, where people can view the source code and use it for free.

“[The algorithm has] been used in dozens of movies, it’s in animation software packages now and there’s a bunch of different tools that people use it in. It’s got a lot of other applications, but certainly, no one has latched on to it as well as the animation field has,” James said.

Kim, currently a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, plans to present the next version of the software, which involves simulating waves on a beach or tsunamis, in March.

Katana Software

With a dramatic whoosh, Spiderman effortlessly swings through the night sky with his web-slinger in The Amazing Spiderman. The audience gasps as he nearly grazes a building, but his agile body twists in the perfect position to avoid the hazard. Despite the scene’s realistic action, Andrew Garfield is not on screen. Those are not real skyscrapers that he is narrowly dodging. Everything on screen has been created by computer graphics. Selan and his team created Katana software which earned them an Academy Award for increasing the control and efficiency of designing real-world simulations.

“It was just 400 million dollars worth relying on a piece of software that you and your buddies wrote,” Selan said.

Before Katana, computer graphics artists had difficulties in creating large-scale, complex animations. Stuart Little, for example, only had one animated character, but Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs featured over 5,000 animated characters, as well as an entirely animated city. Katana was the answer to such a complex problem.

One of the major advantages of Katana is that it allows artists to control geometric complexity on a large scale. If one tried to create a virtual New York City with another program, the computer would likely crash or the artist would have to settle for a coarser picture. Using Katana, on the other hand, allows the artist to load small, specific sections of the picture at a time. This system lets computers handle large-scale animations in addition to simpler scenes.

Another advantage of Katana is that it is easier to use than other similar softwares. Despite the varied levels of complexity in an image, the artist should be able to make several adjustments in the same amount of time. For example, modifying something as complex as the reflectivity of the northward-facing windows in New York City is now as simple as changing the color of Spiderman’s outfit.

Recent films that have incorporated the software include Men in Black 3, Alice in Wonderland, and Oz the Great and Powerful.

Selan wants Katana to not only continue to influence the animation industry but also branch off to different fields.

“The technical approach Katana has with dealing with complexity has merit, and I think other computer graphics software could benefit from taking similar approaches,” he said.

Original Author: Camille Wang