Computer Graphic Artist Kevin Baille
As a computer graphics artist, I spend my days creating computer animations
and other visual effects for films. If you've seen Star Wars Episode I: The
Phantom Menace, one of the films I've worked on, then you probably
understand how rich and lifelike visual effects can be. What you may not
realize is how many people it takes to create such effects (a lot), or how
much artists like me depend on math to create the lifelike creatures and
effects you seen on the big screen.
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Before explaining how math relates to my work, you'll need to understand a
bit about the process we followed on SWI. I worked as a member of animatics
team, which was responsible for creating moving blueprints for scenes in the
movie. George Lucas and the film's editors would tell us, for example, "we
want Anakin Skywalker to fly from this end of the destroyer to the other end
in ten shots." Our team would use 3-D modeling and animation programs to
create a video game quality "rough draft" of the scene. During this
process, a sequence was refined until all were happy with the motion,
timing, and overall feel of what they were seeing. Once George had approved
a shot (the final animatic) we would send it to a team of artists at
Industrial Light & Magic who would then use it as the basis for the much
more detailed final shot or scene you see in the movie.
This kind of work requires a whole range of mathematical skills and
concepts, from basic measurements, to an understanding of sines and
cosines. For example, when we created rough models of the pods for the pod
racing scene, we worked from a physical model that had been built by the
model shop. We had to take measurements of the physical model in order to
recreate it in virtual space. We also had to understand how angles affect
what might be going on the other side of a moving object. Without this
knowledge, animators would not be able to create objects that look realistic
as they move through virtual space.
An understanding of motion, in fact, is central to what we do. I draw on the
key concepts I learned in my high school calculus class all the time. In
particular, I often need to know about the relationships between positional,
velocity, and acceleration curves to animate objects in a realistic way.
Knowledge of functions and how mathematical equations work is also
essential. The flicker of energy that appears to flow from the light sabre
was created using a mathematical function which defined the timing and
intensity of the flicker.
Films using lots of 3D visual effects often use simulations to ensure that a
complex visual effect is precise and accurate. In one scene from SW I, a
rack deploys droids from a large troop carrier. The rack comes out and stops
abruptly, jostling the droids. In order to make this scene look real, ILM
used a physics simulation. A number of variables were plugged into the
simulation, including wind, mass, and velocity. In order to know what to
tell the computer to calculate, you have to understand physics, as well as
Although I've listed only a few examples here of how math impacts my work, I
can think of dozens more. The fact is, I would not be a computer graphics
artist at all without a solid grasp of all kinds of math. My advice to
students would be, find ways to make math relevant to your life. Encourage
your teachers to help you identify the math behind everyday activities.
When you see its relevance outside of a textbook, you'll be able to
understand and apply it in surprising ways.
Biographical Note: Kevin Baillie, a 1997 graduate of Shorecrest High School
in Shoreline, WA, is a computer graphics artist now living in Northern
California. Kevin appeared in a documentary called Learn & Live, produced
by The George Lucas Educational Foundation. The documentary has been
airing on PBS stations nationwide. For more information visit