Movies like Super 8 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, summer blockbusters with multiple action-packed sequences, also have another thing in common: UCSB Assistant Professor Theodore Kim, or rather, his Academy Award-winning work on a new computer algorithm that creates high-definition smoke and fire visuals.
Kim, who works in the university’s Media Arts and Technology department, will receive an Oscar for helping develop simulation coding called “wavelet turbulence.” The concept built off digital special-effects methods developed in the late 1990s, like the ones used to create fake cigarette smoke.
In layman’s terms, “We developed a new technique that was developed into a software that other artists then used [for] large-scale–looking smoke,” said Kim.
Kim said he’s been interested in working in movie animation ever since he saw Pixar’s Toy Story as a child. His postdoctoral thesis at Cornell University was on ice simulation and how snowflakes form, and the paper included info on systems similar to the ones Hollywood is now recognizing him for.
Working with three other colleagues, Kim said the goal of their project wasn’t to win an Academy Award or make a bunch of money. Rather, they just wanted the credit and for their invention to be used by movie makes and video game creators. That’s why, Kim explained, the technique’s source code is available for free. Kim credits this ease of access for the code’s widespread dissemination and use, factors that often help academy members choose a candidate for such an award.
Since publication, the code has also been looked at by organizations like UCSB’s Physics Department, as well as the aerospace industry, which might use the technique to simulate air flow across aircraft to test wind design.
Is Kim excited to be attending the February 24 ceremony as an award winner? “Absolutely,” he said. “I never really thought I would be going to any form of Oscars.” He’ll be taking his wife, and his entire family will be in attendance, as well.