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Software Development Goes to the Movies

Movies As Science

In the past, I have always thought of visualization as primarily a mental process: You receive some knowledge (from any of various sources) and, when you understand it thoroughly, you can 'create a picture of it' in your mind. Nowadays, computer graphicists are trying to place this picture more directly in the mind by creating the pictures with a computer.

—Jim Blinn

It is not simply the fact that scientific side effects can result from solving the technical problems involved in pushing the state of the art in movie special effects and animation. The problems in such movies are often the same as the problems in computer visualization. In fact, there is now the notion of movies as science:

In the early 1980s, JPL decided, for purely scientific reasons, to produce LA—the Movie, a fly-over of Southern California, based on multispectral satellite image data.

By 1990, it was becoming clear what one use of supercomputers would be: Crunching numbers to produce scientific cinema. From a 1990 supercomputing conference paper: "The collapse of an unstable cluster to a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy may explain the origin of quasars and active galactic nuclei. By means of a supercomputer simulation and color graphics, the whole process can be viewed in real time on a movie screen."

And then there's Jim Blinn. Blinn did the graphics for Carl Sagan's Cosmos and much-viewed simulations of Voyager visiting Jupiter and Saturn.

But Blinn is also known for fundamental work in scientific visualization. He came up with new methods to represent the interaction of objects and light in a three-dimensional virtual world. He is now a graphics fellow at Microsoft Research. In the words of Alvy Ray Smith, "Jim is one of the pioneers...everything he did helped establish the field as we know it today."

Bump mapping is one of the methods Blinn developed. "You can emboss a surface or give it a texture like leather or what not," he explains at the Microsoft site. " It's the sort of thing that shows up on the skins of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park." Also from the Microsoft site: "Blinn's early work in computer graphics drew the attention of several Hollywood movie producers, who began calling Blinn to request demonstrations of the special effects he was incorporating into his videos." Blinn: "A lot of people went out and started their own computer graphics groups and special effects houses after seeing the demos I'd done."

Visualization is at the heart of modern moviemaking. It also allows scientists to investigate fields where other research techniques fail to deliver useful insight. "One of the early visualization success stories," according to an NSF website on the history of scientific visualization, "was a model of smog spreading over southern California, a model so informative and realistic that it helped to influence antipollution legislation in the state."

Being able to create a perfect storm for a movie is cool. Being able to perfectly model a real storm, that's important. The fact that the same research might solve both problems? Brilliant.

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