Science in the cinema

Science in the cinema

Physics can lead to a career in special effects. Find out more...

Action or Adventure, Sci Fi or Thriller? Whatever type of film you are into it is often the special effects that make it what it is. Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows and Iron Man 2 are all titles that Double Negative Visual Effects have been working on recently. Future Morph took some time out to chat to Elaine, a shader writer from the company. Read on to find out how she is involved in the film making process and what qualifications you need to follow in her footsteps.

What attracted you to this job?

I was always really interested in physics at school, learning how and why natural phenomena behaved they way they do and understanding things like light and motion, but I also felt like I wanted to have a career that was quite visual as I also loved art and photography. I thought perhaps I could study computer graphics and work in the computer games industry, then Toy Story came out and I was inspired to aim for the world of computer animation.

Iron Man 2

What does your typical day involve?

It really depends what project I'm working on, and what stage that project is at.

At the start of a project, my time is mostly spent figuring out the best approach to a tricky shot or element, what pipeline will work best and what lighting and shading techniques we will need to achieve a certain look.

At the start of a project I'll also be involved in doing lots of research into lighting techniques, and maths and physics feature heavily here. I've to help make sure that we can achieve all the looks we need to, with all the technology that is available to us.

Once the project is up and running, my day to day job includes a combination of writing and maintaining the tools and techniques we've decided to use (or try), working with other artists to make sure these tools are what they need, and that they're easy to use and working properly.

Towards the end of the project I spend most of my time supporting artists by fixing bugs or making tweaks to the tools we've put in place and helping them find rendering solutions to getting those tricky shots through. As I'm involved in writing the lighting tools, lots of people will come to me with questions when they are lighting their scenes, so it's really useful to have a good understanding of how light works in the real world so I can understand what they need and the best way to go about helping them to achieve what they're after.


How did you get to where you are today?

For Leaving Certificate - the equivalent of A-levels in Ireland - the subjects I studied included Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. I also studied English, Irish and French. I have a BSc in Computer Applications from Dublin City University, and from there I went on to get an MSc in Computer Animation from Bournemouth University. Once I left Bournemouth I came straight into the industry.

I worked in R&D (research and design) for a few years and now I'm a Shader Writer and I also look after the lighting pipeline on a show.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of following your path?

Definitely keep up with maths and physics in school. I was so surprised when the things I'd learned in school that seemed so abstract started to crop up with real applications in computer animation and visual effects. A big part of what I do is write computer programmes to simulate light and how light interacts with surfaces in different ways, with all of this drawn directly from real world physics and maths - so suddenly calculus and trigonometry are incredibly useful things to know and understand!

Having an understanding of physics is really important, as you are basically trying to recreate real-world phenomena within the computer, so you need to be able to dissect and understand how these things work in the first place!

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To read the full interview, go to the Future Morph website.

Some of Double Negative's key artists talk about their experiences working in the industry and how they use maths and/or science from day to day in this video clip.