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From physics degree to Hollywood

By James Dacey

Photo of Rob Pieké

Rob Pieké. (Courtesy: Manisha Lalloo)

This summer many of you will watch smoke billowing out of buildings as yet another villain wreaks havoc on the New York skyline in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I’m willing to bet that as you eat your popcorn you won’t be thinking about the Navier–Stokes equations of fluid dynamics. (Well, perhaps you will now that I’ve mentioned it!)

In fact, part of the reason that virtual smoke in films looks so realistic is because visual effects (VFX) specialists have applied the Navier–Stokes equations to their graphics. This was one of the interesting tidbits I learned from a talk yesterday in London by Rob Pieké, head of software at Moving Picture Company (MPC).

Pieké was speaking as part of a half-day event on “physics and film” organized by the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World. The gist of his presentation was that basic physics principles are used in a variety of ways to create special effects that capture viewers’ attention. “The audience wants to see something fantastical but grounded in reality,” said Pieké. Another example he gave was how naturally bouncing hair in computer-generated characters is modelled on mass—spring systems. Each individual hair could be modelled on as many as 30 masses connecting by springs.

With films such as The Martian, The Revenant and X-Men all featuring VFX from MPC’s team, it’s clear that Pieké works for industry leaders. But even though the VFX industry is booming right now, there is still a shortage of workers in the UK to fulfil the demand required from the film industry. Pieké believes that part of the reason is a perception that these jobs are only suitable for people with formal arts training. In actual fact, many roles in the industry could be filled by physics and mathematics graduates – key requirements are problem-solving abilities and a passion for film.

Opportunities for physics graduates in the creative industries was also the theme of a talk by Yen Yau, talent development manager at education charity Into Film. Yau spends a lot of her time at careers fairs encouraging STEM graduates to consider these roles, particularly as many of them are listed on the UK government’s shortage occupation list, which enables employers to bypass the resident market test. She drew particular attention to the success of the UK software and games industry, which is worth £35,073m – many times larger than the publishing and film and TV industries.

Yesterday’s event was interesting because of the diversity of topics covered. Steve Crabtree, editor of BBC’s Horizon series, showed clips from the show’s 50-year archive. We also heard from Giovanna Tinetti, an astrophysicist at University College London who spoke about exoplanets that resemble some of the familiar worlds from science fiction. For instance, the small fiery planet of Mustafar in Star Wars is reminiscent of the exoplanet Corot-7b detected in 2009.

We also heard from David Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood, named in our top 10 books of 2011. A former evolutionary geneticist, Kirby is now based at the University of Manchester where he researches the various ways in which scientists can consult filmmakers in Hollywood. Perhaps the most familiar role is to advise on the science itself just as gravitational physicist Kip Thorne worked with Christopher Nolan on the science behind the 2014 hit Interstellar.

But Kirby identifies many other ways that scientists are helping in Hollywood. For instance, working with actors to help them understand how scientists think and behave. He gave the example of the mathematician Ken Ono advising actor Dev Patel on the set of The Man Who Knew Infinity, the recent biopic about the life and work of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Apparently Ono helped with all sorts of things from how to write equations on a blackboard to how a mathematician might respond to a key breakthrough.

So why should scientists bother to get involved in consulting Hollywood? Kirby says it’s a great way to draw attention to your area of science. It can also stimulate technological developments. He cited the team that helped advise on the science behind soft robots for the Disney film Big Hero 6, which went on to secure more funding for this type of technology. Meanwhile, organizations such as NASA and the USGS have been benefiting from positive publicity in Hollywood for years.

At the close of yesterday’s meeting, I left with many takeaway messages. Perhaps the key one was the varied ways that physicists can get involved with the film industry. Whether it’s working alongside a top director, or helping Hollywood to blow the hell out of buildings in realistic ways, the opportunities are exciting and vast. Or, in the words of words of CGI icon Buzz Lightyear, “To infinity, and beyond!”

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