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Software Development Goes to the Movies

The relationship between cinema and technology is a complex and fascinating one.

—from the Google review of Technology and Culture, the Film Reader, by Andrew Utterson

As director of software development at Digital Productions, Larry Yaeger produced the first photo-realistic computer graphics in a feature film—1984's The Last Starfighter. This may have been one of the first explicit indications that software development was becoming an integral part of movie production.

This year's Academy Awards even more explicitly recognized the work of software development in movies, and specifically of some code crunching water wizards at Stanford University and Industrial Light and Magic in solving some tough problems in fluid dynamics—problems posed by the movie Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End.

Nick Rasmussen, Ron Fedkiw, and Frank Losasso Petterson were recognized for the development of the ILM fluid simulation system. "This production-proven simulation system," the Academy said, "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." Not explicitly acknowledged in the award was PhysBAM (www.physbam.com.futuresite.register.com), the C++ library for computational fluid dynamics problems, of which Fedkiw is one of the developers.

Water is one of the toughest things to simulate in movies, a fact well documented in—what else—a movie called Perfect Water (www.pbs.org/kcet/wiredscience/video/310-perfect_water.html). Water is computationally expensive, which is why, when you want to simulate a maelstrom, it takes a render farm—and the right equations. But if you get it right, maybe you get an Oscar. And maybe something more.

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