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Stanford Computer Scientist Gets Academy Award for Fluid Simulation

Ron Fedkiw, associate professor of computer science at Stanford University, and his collaborators Nick Rasmussen and Frank Losasso Petterson from the special effects firm Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) will be honored this year by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences with a Scientific and Engineering Award plaque for their work on computer-generated fluids. The rushing floodwaters in Evan Almighty, the heaving seas of the latter two Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the dragon's flaming breath in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are examples of their work's ultimate effect.

"The primary work started a few years ago when we developed a system designed for the female liquid terminator in Terminator 3," Fedkiw said. "Almost immediately after that, it was used in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie to simulate the wine that the pirate skeleton was drinking out of the bottle in the moonlight."

The system uses a method of simulating low-viscosity fluids such as water and fire. Computer graphics experts typically have used particles and complex blobs to represent water, but these can give rise to unrealistically lumpy or grainy surfaces. Alternatively, they have used a technique called "the level set method" that gives a smooth surface representation, but some water is "under resolved" and simply disappears when it breaks down into small volumes, as in a crashing wave.

The key innovation behind the team's "particle level set method" was to mix the use of particles and level sets so that studios could maintain smooth surfaces wherever possible and still keep all the fluid via the particle representation. This production-proven simulation system achieves large-scale water effects within ILM's Zeno framework. It includes integrating particle level sets, parallel computation, and tools that enable the artistic direction of the results.

Such integrations are indicative of a future direction of Fedkiw's computer graphics research. "This year we built a system that allows two-way coupling between rigid and deformable bodies, so we can fully physically simulate bones moving around under flesh—interacting with the environment," he said. "Another main result is a two-way, solid-fluid coupling method that can be used with it, so the environment can be water; that is, we're going to be simulating people swimming."

Also being honored this year with a Scientific and Engineering Academy Plaque are Dr. Doug Roble, Nafees Bin Zafar, and Ryo Sakaguchi for their development of the fluid simulation system at Digital Domain. This influential and flexible system incorporates innovative algorithms and refined adaptations of published methods to achieve large-scale water effects.

This year's Scientific and Technical Academy Awards presentation will be held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on February 9.

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