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Microsoft researcher honored as computer-graphics pioneer
Seattle Times staff reporter
None of the major fashion designers offered to dress John Platt for the Academy Awards.
Nor were paparazzi clamoring behind velvet ropes when the Redmond man arrived to collect his award at the Scientific and Technical Oscars on Feb. 18.
There was a red carpet — but only because the Discovery Channel trucked it in for a documentary on science and cinema.
The lack of pageantry didn't faze Platt, who, after all, was wearing a rented tuxedo. (Black bow tie, red-rose boutonniere, no cummerbund, as E! fashion commentator Isaac Mizrahi might have noted had he not been prepping for Sunday's main event.)
"It's very much more relaxed than the real Oscars," said Platt, 42, a senior researcher at Microsoft.
There wasn't any suspense or pressure to act the gracious loser. They already knew they were being honored for accomplishments of "special and outstanding value to the arts and sciences of motion pictures."
Platt's Technical Achievement Award was for pioneering work in computer graphics.
Check out John Platt's work
To see the results of cloth-simulation programs based on John Platt's pioneering work, check out the clothing in trailer No. 2 for the Pixar film "The Incredibles" and the little girl's T-shirt in the trailer for "Monsters, Inc." The trailers can be found at www.pixar.com/featurefilms/index.html
Nearly 20 years ago, as a California Institute of Technology graduate student, he helped revolutionize the way cloth, rubber, gels and other flexible materials are simulated in cyberspace.
His approach has been refined many times. But it remains the foundation for special effects like the billowing sails on the flotilla of computer-generated ships in the movie "Troy," or the realistic garments that clothe armies of marauding orcs in the "Lord of the Rings" movie series.
"This was one of the key turning points in graphics," said Cal Tech computer-science professor Alan Barr. Platt was part of a group of "brilliant nerds" Barr assembled in the mid-1980s, when computer graphics were little more than crude geometric shapes.
A math prodigy who started college at 14, Platt was the youngest of the group — but fit right in, Barr said.
"John is a flamboyant, extroverted nerd — fast and funny."
Three other former members of Barr's research group, who now work at Pixar Animation Studios, also took home awards at this year's science Oscars for graphic advances that built on Platt's initial work.
Challenge of fabric
Realistic-looking fabric has long been a bugaboo for animators, said Demetri Terzopoulos, who collaborated with Platt and shared in the award. Cinderella's ball gown in the classic 1950 Disney film merely hints at draped silk, because it is nearly impossible to draw by hand all the folds, wrinkles and swaying motions of real cloth.
"It takes an enormous amount of time," said Terzopoulos, now Chancellor's Professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The first attempts to simulate cloth on computers look more like rubber or chain mail, because the equations used to generate the images lacked detail and realism.
Platt and Terzopoulos changed that by applying basic physics equations that describe the way elastic objects behave. "You take these laws of motions for cloth and you simulate gravity, you simulate wind, you simulate contact between the cloth and the body," Terzopoulos said.
Then, when an animated character moves, his clothes will automatically behave the way clothes should.
In 1987, when the idea was first presented, computers were a thousand times slower than they are today. And there were a lot of bugs to work out with the software, said Kurt Fleischer, who was the artistic member of the team. He created images of a flag rippling in the wind and a Persian carpet to test the system.
"The first several hundred times, we'd hit the return key, the thing would start to go forward in time, then it would explode," said Fleischer, now a graphics expert at Pixar.
It was nearly 10 years before computer capacity expanded enough for the approach to be applied to movies.
Even now, cloth simulations are tough, Fleischer said.
In a deceptively simple scene in the Pixar film "Monsters, Inc.," a furry beast lifts a little girl by her T-shirt.
"That took all hands on deck, to do one T-shirt," he said.
Test of time
Unlike the regular Oscars, which focus on the previous year's movies, the science and technical awards are aimed at innovations that have stood the test of time, said Richard Miller, who runs the program for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Other awards this year went to the inventors of a remote-controlled camera called the hot-head and an air-bag that provides safer landings for stunt jumpers.
Preceded by a four-course dinner, the ceremony at the Beverly Hilton hotel lacked the star power that will be out in force Sunday. The only glitter was provided by host Rachel McAdams, an actress Platt said he recognized from "Wedding Crashers."
He went easy on the wine, so as not to botch his 45-second acceptance speech — which included a numbers joke.
Riffing on the trivia game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," Platt thanked McAdams for lowering his Kevin Bacon number to three. (McAdams appeared in a movie with actor Beau Starr, who appeared in a movie with Kevin Bacon.)
He also thanked the neighbors who were baby-sitting his two kids.
His award is now resting on his mantelpiece — but it's a certificate, not a statuette.
"It's nice," Platt said. "It has a picture of an Oscar on it."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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