In a small, utilitarian office in Glendale, Calif., Ron Henderson methodically jotted down equations for Isaac Newton’s Three Laws of Motion on a whiteboard next to his desk.
The equations, the physicist explained, are the mathematical building blocks for constructing a three-dimensional, bubble-like sphere.
Henderson could easily have been preparing a lesson at Caltech, where he once was a faculty member. Instead, he was at DreamWorks Animation’s Tuscany-style campus, doing his part to bridge the divide between art and science.
Henderson was explaining the math behind a fluid-simulation technology that would help artists working on the upcoming movie “Home” draw soap bubbles inhabited by a race of diminutive aliens called the Boov.
To give them visual references, Henderson and his team began by studying drawings and photos of soap films and bubbles last year. He invited a physicist colleague from San Jose State to give a lecture titled “Bubble Science.”
The physicist, Alejandro Garcia, took a low-tech approach. He arrived at the studio with boxes of liquid soap and party bubbles, using a plastic wand to fashion large bubbles for an audience of artists and technicians gathered at an outdoor amphitheater.
“He did cool things that we’re not doing, like what happens when you make a soap bubble out of hydrogen and set it on fire?” Henderson said, chuckling. “What does that look like?” (The bubble made a loud boom and burst into a fireball when an assistant took a Tiki torch to it.)
That’s the kind of thing that happens when the scientific set makes the move to the movies.
“What we’re doing here is creating tools for artists,” Henderson said. “I think it’s going to be a success.”
NASA to Hollywood
Henderson, 47, is part of an expanding cadre of high-level physicists, engineers and other scientists, including many former NASA employees, who have left careers in aerospace and academia to work in the movie business.
Demand for their services has grown as animated movies, once created by hand, push the boundaries of what can be created on a computer screen. Artists at DreamWorks, Disney-owned Pixar and other studios increasingly rely on the services of people such as Henderson to create complex algorithms to simulate realistic-looking water, fire, dust and other elements in movies packed with action and special effects.
“The physics behind what’s happening in these movies is incredibly complicated,” said Paul Debevec, a computer scientist and chief visual officer at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. “You need real scientists to understand what’s going on. These are Ph.D.-level folks who could have been publishing papers in Physics Today. Instead, they are working on Hollywood blockbuster films.”
Scientists who leave academia for Hollywood risk losing some prestige among their peers. “My advisor at Caltech got some flak from Princeton, saying ‘How come you guys let him leave?’ ” Henderson said.
Although they typically get paid more in the film business, Henderson says money isn’t the main draw. He cites the excitement of working on movies and the challenge of finding solutions to technical problems.
DreamWorks has one of the largest contingents of scientists.
“We have sculptors and painters working side by side with software developers and particle physicists,” said Dan Satterthwaite, the studio’s human resources directors.
The company’s research and development group has about 120 members with master’s and doctoral degrees in such fields as cognitive science, astrophysics, aeronautical engineering, chemistry, mathematics and computer science. Nearly a dozen of them are former employees of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The studio has even hired biologists to advise animators on how to correctly illustrate the proper branch structure on a tree.
“This whole company is a very interesting mix of left brain and right brain,” said Jim Mainard, head of digital strategy and new business development for DreamWorks. “Often we end up at the same place, but from different directions.”
Mainard, himself a computer scientist, used to work for a NASA contractor involved in the Hubble Space Telescope. He also created film simulations for the Navy before DreamWorks hired him to help the studio build its own pipeline of computer-animated movies.
“When I came out of college, I never thought I would work in the entertainment business,” Mainard said. “For me, it was just a great time to make the transition. We were having our first child and I just liked the idea of making animated films. I thought that would align with having a family. … Making people laugh is a great legacy.”