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What computer scientists have won motion picture Academy Awards?

Although it seems like a stretch—from the world of complex mathematics to the fantasy worlds of movies—there are connections between these two professional worlds. One in particular has to do with developing computer programs and software to do special effects in movies. And those computer specialists/mathematicians who work on such programs have often walked away with motion picture Academy Awards.

One of the first people to work on special effects who gained recognition was Ken Perlin, who created a random distribution function that generated lifelike textures for computer graphics. But it took more than a decade for Perlin to win an Academy Award for Technical Achievement. In 1997 he finally won the award for his work in the movie Tron. Some say it was the stodginess of many people in Hollywood—and even the movie-going public—who believed using a computer for a movie was like cheating.

There have been other winners of the award, including in 2008, when Ron Fedkiw of Stanford University in California and Nick Rasmussen and Frank Lasasso Petterson of Industrial Light and Magic (the same special effects company that was started by George Lucas of Star Wars fame) won for the computer-generated special effects programs they developed for Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And in 2010, Paul Debevec of the University of California’s Computer Science Department of the Viterbi School of Engineering won for developing technologies used to create believable digital faces in major motion pictures, including Spider-Man 2 and the fantasy movie Avatar. In the latter movie, his techniques included mapping the faces of live actors and putting them onto digital puppets, making the fantasy seem very real to moviegoers.


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