Computer Graphic Artist Kevin Baille

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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.

kevin bailleBefore 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 math.

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