Speaker stresses role of math in animation

Sean McCoy

Tony DeRose considers himself a nerd.
While others might disagree, it’s clear his life of academia is now overshadowed by his recent nomination for an Academy Award.
In his presentation Thursday titled “How Geometry is Changing Hollywood,” DeRose, a “minister of geometry” for Pixar Animation Studios in Richmond, Calif., said computer animation has become a powerful force in an industry traditionally dominated by live actors and hand animation.
“(Computer animated) effects can be realistic, believable and safer for actors,” DeRose said. “Many times computer time is less expensive than people time.”
DeRose, who left his position as a computer science professor at the University of Washington in 1996 after 10 years, was recently nominated for an Academy Award for the animated short film “Geri’s Game.” He talked to a crowd of about 150 people at Willey Hall about the relationship of geometry to computer animation.
“I think it’s great,” said Naresh Jain, the head of the mathematics department, of the role of mathematics in movie-making. “What is not understood by most people is that when technology is used, there is often serious mathematics behind it.”
According to DeRose, the spark of the digital revolution in film-making ignites when geometry, computer science and computational physics converge.
With eight patent applications to his name — three from “Geri’s Game” — DeRose is on the cutting edge of the animation industry.
“In ‘Toy Story,’ (the animation) took about six hours per frame,” he said. “It has stayed that way for about 10 years because as computers get faster, images get more complex.”
Before he spoke, students saw an example of the complex images he created in “Geri’s Game.”
DeRose will use some of the innovations from “Geri’s Game” in the feature-length movie “A Bug’s Life,” which will be released this fall.
“It’s about the world of very small bugs in an outdoor, organic environment,” said DeRose.
For “A Bug’s Life,” he will use wavelets, which are mathematical tools for formalizing data, to simplify the complex surfaces he needs to create.
“The more people-made objects, the easier the animation,” DeRose said, explaining that, because there are no straight edges in the natural environment, perfecting surfaces is a difficult challenge.
Many of the audience members said they were inspired to see mathematics applied to the real world.
“This is pure math done the right way,” said computer science graduate student Matt Cruikshank.
“It’s becoming fashionable to be a nerd,” said DeRose.