Corinne Kenwood / Sun Staff Photographer

May 2, 2017

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Computer Science Passion Led Professor to Academy Award

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Prof. Steve Marschner ’98, computer science, begged his parents for an Apple II in fourth grade so he could write programs on the 8-bit computer, but probably never thought his passion would lead to recognition from the Academy Awards.

Marschner is renowned for his work with physics-based animation, which includes difficult tasks such as animating cloth, hair, water “and things that behave according to physics rather than according to their own intention.”

The professor and his colleagues are responsible for writing the code that was used to make Gollum, the animated character in The Lord of the Rings movies, look more realistic by making his skin appear more translucent. That work resulted in Marschner, as part of a team, winning a technical Oscar from the Academy Awards.

“When we did that work, we were interested in translucency just as some arbitrary physical effect that was interesting to try to simulate,” Marschner said. “And we didn’t really realize until after we made the model and were doing some tests with it that it was actually incredibly useful for rendering skin.”

“We developed the math and physics for rendering translucent skin, and lots of [Hollywood] studios adopted this and implemented this,” he added.

Marschner majored in computer science and math at Brown University before earning a Ph.D. from Cornell, where he worked with Don Greenberg in the Department of Computer Graphics and entered the Ph.D. program largely because he was able to land a job in Greenberg’s lab.

Before returning to the Ithaca campus, Marschner worked for Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Stanford. When Cornell offered him a position as professor, he said he could not turn down the opportunity to return to his alma mater.

Marschner said he enjoys the opportunities and freedom that academia allows.

“The thing that really draws most faculty — at least at a school like Cornell — to the job is the ability to do research and to find your own problems and be your own boss,” Marschner said.

“In some ways, doing research is not that different in an engineering field like computer science from doing advanced product development … in some company, but a big difference is that you get to pick the problems.”

While the freedom to pursue research questions of his choosing is “one big excitement” for Marschner, he also enjoys working with students.

“Both undergrad and Ph.D. years are a really exciting time of life and it’s fun to work with students and see how far they grow,” he said.

Marschner, who enjoys cooking, hiking and kayaking outside the classroom, teaches advanced and undergraduate courses in computer graphics as well as Intro Computer Science every few years.

His students are currently working on research projects involving 3-D printing, realistic rendering and simulation of how textiles operate.

“Some people may not think [CS 1110] is exciting because it’s such elementary stuff to a computer scientist, but, on the other hand, I like the idea of showing someone the niftiness of how clever it is the way loops work in a programming language,” Marschner said, “and once you can do this thing once you can do it a million times, and isn’t that cool?”

“I guess I haven’t lost the excitement for these ideas.”