Computer Scientist Reveals the Math and Science behind Blockbuster Movies

It’s clear that the computer-generated special effects in Pirates of the Caribbean and others breathe life to such fantasies. Amazingly, the amount of math and science behind such blockbusters baffles even the adept scientist.

Computer graphics (CG) experts used to have to make a Catch-22 decision. They could run inferior algorithms on many processors or run the best algorithm on only one processor. The problem is that many algorithms do not scale well to larger numbers of processors. But about a year and a half ago Fedkiw, who has consulted for ILM for six years, figured out how to run a star algorithm on many processors, resulting in special effects unprecedented in their realism.

He designs new algorithms for diverse applications such as computational fluid dynamics and solid mechanics, computer graphics, computer vision and computational biomechanics. The algorithms may rotate objects, simulate textures, generate reflections or mimic collisions. Or they may mathematically stitch together slices of a falling water drop, rising smoke wisp or flickering flame to weave realism into CG images.

Fedkiw received screen credits for his work on Poseidon, on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines for the liquid terminator and the nuclear explosions, and on Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith for explosions in space battle scenes.

Most of Fedkiw’s students double-major in math and computer science. “Graphics itself is a bit less important, and many of them don’t take their first graphics class until their junior or senior year of college.

Fedkiw’s favorite movie employing CG is Revenge of the Sith. “When I watched the first [Star Wars film] at 9 years old, I never dreamed that I’d eventually be helping to make the last one.” He says.




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