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February 5, 2015

Stanford professor shares Academy Award for software to digitize destruction

Computerized simulation simplifies the math and physics of animated movie collisions to create a point-click-and-drag tool for putting the kibosh on buildings, cities, even planets.

By Tom Abate

"Terminator Salvation" is one of many movies that have helped Stanford Professor Ron Fedkiw earn an Academy Award. (Industrial Light & Magic)

A Stanford professor has won an Academy Award for helping put the crunch and devastation into blockbuster movies.

Ron Fedkiw, a professor of computer science, will share a technical achievement award for co-creating a sophisticated simulation library called the ILM PhysBAM Destruction System.

PhysBAM allows moviemakers to simulate the destruction that would ensue if, say, arch villains staged a downtown battle with superheroes. The software toolkit has been used in the Avenger and Transformers movies, among others.

"There's never been an award for destruction before," Fedkiw quipped.

He will share the award with Brice Criswell, senior software engineer at Industrial Light & Magic.

Criswell said the award acknowledges the growing capabilities of computer simulations.

"It's a coming of age for how we can destroy things using software," Criswell said. "Before, effects artists would build miniature models and take them out on the set and blow them up on camera."

In addition to being more efficient, computer simulations give filmmakers greater artistic control over special effects. Using PhysBAM, moviemakers can repeat and tweak destructive scenes for dramatic effect.

"The toolkit lets them get the 'Wow!" they want," Fedkiw said.

At the same time, however, PhysBAM ensures that the effects do not confound the laws of nature. Fedkiw said much of the sophisticated physics baked into PhysBAM's destruction algorithms came from PhD thesis work done by Rachel Weinstein, a former student in his lab who now works for Google.

As Fedkiw explained, PhysBAM's computer models treat large objects as the sum of many small, rigid parts. These parts are connected by algorithms that are the software version of rubber bands. The algorithms allow solid structures to simulate flexibility, while accounting for the structural differences between a brick building and a glass-and-steel skyscraper. 

Against this model of structural flexibility, PhysBAM applies different destructive forces to show what would happen if, say, Hulk were to smash a brick wall or Iron Man careened off course to nick the gleaming headquarters of Stark Enterprises.

When Fedkiw receives his award on Feb. 7, it will be the second time he has been so honored by the Motion Picture Academy.

 In 2007 Fedkiw shared an Academy Award for software simulations to better model fluid movements, a tool used to show the dragon's flaming breath in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, among other movie credits.

Other Stanford engineers have garnered technical awards in the past. Last year, Pat Hanrahan, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, received his third award from the Academy for work that allows Hollywood to more easily and accurately reproduce real-world lighting in computer-generated films like Avatar and Monsters University. He was honored along with two of his former doctoral students.

Fedkiw became a technical consultant to ILM shortly after he came to Stanford to teach in 2000. The relationship has given him and his graduate students new ways to employ computer simulations in the real world, typically used to minimize damage, for instance, by modeling how engine parts withstand heat, vibration and other stresses.

"In the real world you want mellow," Fedkiw said. "In the movies you want cool."

For more Stanford experts on computer science and other topics, visit Stanford Experts.



Tom Abate, associate director of communications, Stanford Engineering: (650) 736-2245,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,


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