An Alternative View: Prof Makes Innovative Animation Codes Open Source

UBC Reports | Vol.
51 | No. 7 |
Jul. 7, 2005

By Brian Lin

If you were convinced that British child actor Daniel Radcliffe really could fly when he straddled the magic broom in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, you have Robert Bridson to thank.

Bridson, 28, from the Imager Lab for Graphics, Visualization and Human Computer Interaction at UBC’s Dept. of Computer Science (see sidebar), was instrumental in developing software modules that made Potter’s cape appear to fly naturally as he whipped through the air in a fierce game of Quidditch.

The modules allow animators to quickly and realistically simulate the movement of cloth and were developed by Bridson while working on his PhD at Stanford University. The effects were so realistic that the codes were immediately adopted by animation powerhouse Industrial Light + Magic — founded by George Lucas — to make the last two Harry Potter movies and Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.

Now Bridson is putting that experience to good use in perfecting modules that simulate water and other complicated fluid movement. Based on the laws of physics, Bridson’s codes are poised to make waves in an industry where the yardstick for excellence is looking “normal.”

“It will save animators a tremendous amount of time,” says Bridson. That’s because movement of everything from surf to toothpaste could be modeled quickly and realistically with the click of a button.

“Despite the advances in graphics technology, modeling simple movements of cloth and water remains one of the biggest challenges for animation software programmers,” says Bridson, who once aspired to be an animator himself.

“And if they’re not realistic, the audience would instantly sense that something looks odd because we’re so used to seeing the correct version.”

While there is no doubt about the potential commercial value of Bridson’s codes — which he has slaved over in the two years since he arrived at UBC — he’ll make them readily available over the Internet when he completes the project at the end of the summer.

“Visual effects studios are not paid according to how well the movies do in the box office,” explains Bridson as to why he won’t go the conventional commercialization route. “The truth is most of them are struggling just to stay in the black, so there isn’t a huge amount of money to be made here.

“By making the codes open source, animation software programmers can immediately make use of the modules to develop better tools, and other researchers in the field will be able to reference my work and create even better modules,” adds Bridson.

“I think it’s a healthier approach for the industry as a whole.”

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Established in 1989, the Imager Laboratory for Graphics, Visualization and Human Computer Interaction at the Dept. of Computer Science is one of North America’s top research groups in the area of computer graphics.

With an impressive list of clients and supporters in the entertainment, engineering design and e-commerce industries — including Pixar, DreamWorks, IBM and Sun Microsystems — researchers at the Imager Lab conduct groundbreaking research in both the physical and psychological aspects of our increasingly intimate relationship with technology.

The Lab’s close industry ties means timely application of the research to animation and visual effects of blockbuster movies, the design and construction of skyscrapers and airplanes, and even medical education.

For more information, visit