Scientists and artists make movies together

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Scientists and artists make movies together

Ron Henderson, director of research and development at DreamWorks Animation, works on equations for the fluid dynamics behind a fluid simulation technology that gives animation artists the tools to work on the upcoming movie "Home" as they draw soap bubbles inhabited by diminutive aliens called the Boov. Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/MCT

In a small office, Ron Henderson was busy writing out equations.

Henderson is a physicist — a scientist who studies matter, energy, force and motion. The equations were Isaac Newton’s Three Laws of Motion.

Henderson explained that Newton's laws are behind a computer program he has developed. The program will soon help a group of artists with a difficult task: making three-dimensional bubbles that look almost real.

Henderson used to be a physics professor at Caltech. These days he works at DreamWorks Animation in California.

Animated films are cartoons that last as long as a movie. In the past, they were drawn entirely by hand. Now artists produce them on a computer.

Scientists Get To Be Creative

Artists working on the upcoming movie "Home" have a challenging job: They have to produce a lot of pictures of three-dimensional soap bubbles. Tiny aliens called the Boov live in the bubbles.

Henderson's computer program will be very important for the task. It will make those bubbles look as real as possible.

“What we’re doing here is creating tools for artists,” Henderson said. “I think it’s going to be a success.”

Henderson is only one of many scientists who now work in the movie business.

Animation artists rely more and more on people like Henderson. The scientists help them produce realistic-looking water, fire, dust and so on.

The effects in many animated movies are "incredibly complicated,” said computer scientist Paul Debevec. To get them right, you need "real scientists.”

Special Effects Can Be Tricky

DreamWorks has one of the largest groups of scientists: around 120 in all.

DreamWorks has even hired biologists. Biologists study humans, plants and animals. They are there to show artists how to correctly draw such things as tree branches.

Henderson finds working at DreamWorks very satisfying.

Science can be "very lonely,” he said. “I wanted to have the experience of working with people and being able to see the results of what I did.”

Henderson first became interested in working in animation after seeing the movie “Shrek.” The film made him very curious: He wanted to know how it was possible to achieve what he saw.

“What astonished me was how much detail and motion there was in every frame, the motion of the trees, the grass," he said. “I didn’t think it was possible.”

Now Henderson is working on animated movies himself. Each has its own tricky effect: For example, there's the frost in “Rise of the Guardians.” Then there's the cannon fire in “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Or there's the ice-breathing dragon in “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

How Do Bubbles Behave?

His latest challenge was creating those bubbles in “Home." They aren't just the aliens' homes. They're also spaceships for the aliens.

Making a picture of a bubble on a flat surface isn't too hard. What's much trickier is this: Wrapping that picture around a floating shape that's a bit like a soccer ball.

Henderson set out to solve the problem. To do so, he drew on his knowledge of how bubbles behave. What he came up with is based on a computer program used to study weather patterns.

The fact that few moviegoers will appreciate his achievement doesn’t bother Henderson. The work is its own reward.

Henderson enjoys “doing something where you can clearly see the results of your work." Figuring out new ways to help artists is a thrill for him, he said. "That’s what keeps me coming here every day.”

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