Canadian researcher builds algorithms for filmmakers

A University of Toronto computer science researcher, awarded the 2010 Steacie Prize for Natural Sciences last month for his work in computer animation, is fascinated by the challenge that is mimicking with computer algorithms the natural human movement that we so take for granted.

“We can all walk around in the world and we don’t think about it … but to make a robot or (animated) character walk and really obey the laws of physics is really hard,” said Aaron Hertzmann, the University of Toronto professor who received the $10,000 prize in December.

Hertzmann has been conducting research in computer animation for 15 years now, seven of those at the University of Toronto, specifically in creating controllable lifelike movements, and in artistic rendering such as painting and drawing.

“Animators really love traditional animation like classic Disney animation … There’s a lot of beauty and warmth that comes from traditional styles of media that you don’t have with conventional computer animation,” said Hertzmann. “What we’d like to do is get the best of both worlds. Right now no one really knows how to do that.”

If this is computer programming that sounds a tad bit artsy it’s because it is art in Hertzmann’s eyes. The 36-year-old double majored in computer science and art at Rice University before doing his PhD at New York University.
“So, I spent a lot of time programming and I spent a lot of time painting,” recalls Hertzmann.
With an eye for appreciating “amazing” creative works of animation, Hertzmann cites short films A Town Called Panic and Ryan as among his favourites. 

While his research is aimed at developing tools for video game creators and movie studios, there is also applicability in data modeling, biomachines and physical therapy. But for now, Hertzmann is focused on visiting animation studios and transferring this technology for use in creating films.

This is only the second time that the Steacie Prize for Natural Sciences, an annual award bestowed upon scientists and engineers 40 years and younger, has been given to a computer scientist.

Previous award recipients hail from areas including astronomy and physics, molecular genetics, physics and chemistry.

The award, while greatly appreciated, doesn’t change much for Hertzmann who anticipates his research continuing as normal. But with several “really exciting breakthroughs recently” in his work on human motion modeling, Hertzmann is thrilled to venture into new computer animation territory.

“And so we have this starting point that we’re excited about and look forward to developing new tools from,” said Hertzmann.

Born in New York, Hertzmann grew up in California.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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