Computer science professor Theodore Kim has worked with Lightning McQueen, Elastigirl and Coco. Or, at least that’s what he tells his nieces and nephews.
Kim joined the Computer Science Department in July 2019 and is teaching “Physics Simulation for Movies, Games, and Fabrication” this semester. But before coming to Yale, Kim worked as a senior research scientist at Pixar Research, where he collected screen credits for popular films such as “Cars 3,” “Coco” and “Incredibles 2.” He won a Technical Achievement Award in 2012 for his co-invention of the Wavelet Turbulence software, which “allowed for fast, art-directable creation of highly detailed gas simulation,” according to a press release from Cornell University. The software was used to produce movies such as the J.J. Abrams-directed “Super 8” and “Life of Pi.” Kim’s most recently-released work — “Toy Story 4” — reached theaters in June 2019. According to Kim, his work may continue to feature in future films.
Kim’s research was also used in dozens of the most popular movies of the 21st century, including “Avatar,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Iron Man 3” and “Thor.” His work was also used to help render the Sorting Hat in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” although he did not receive screen credit for his contribution, he said.
“I was in the theater, and [it] was a little surreal and confusing,” Kim said about seeing his work in the Harry Potter franchise. “It’s like, ‘Oh I wrote some stuff, and now, it’s up there.’ And that’s really great. I [have] always wanted something like this to happen.”
The first step in creating a computer graphic, according to Kim, is finding a problem to solve. Having been drawn to Yale’s Computer Graphics Group by professors Holly Rushmeier and Julie Dorsey — whose research he studied as a postgraduate — Kim is now hoping to find those problems that none could individually solve before.
“We are always on the lookout for particularly outstanding researchers who are interested in an academic position,” Rushmeier said in an email to the News. “This time we were extremely fortunate and it was a good matchup for … Kim and for our Department.”
Kim added that his work centers around accurately creating physics-based simulations that are often used in movies. He specializes in animating fire, water and human flesh through the study of fluid mechanics.
Kim’s research is usually accompanied by a short film clip of his discoveries in action. The latest video listed on his website, posted to the Pixar Graphics Vimeo account earlier this year, features an octopus falling on a blue hammock with almost lifelike accuracy.
It is an artistic side of research that Kim said could be unique to his scientific field.
“You sort of feel like you’re doing some virtual photography-type stuff,” he said. “It’s like, we just want to make it look good. So, in those moments, yeah, you can sort of feel like a photographer.”
The field of computer graphics is relatively new, as the original “Toy Story” film — released in 1995 — was the first feature length film to be made entirely on a computer, Kim said. He added that when he first saw the movie as a young adult, he previously was not aware of the field of computer animation and its application in movies.
“[Computer animation] just came out of nowhere like, ‘Oh my gosh this is possible,’” he said. “It was not on my radar at all that this sort of thing was possible. And I thought it was amazing and I thought if I can do this somehow as a living that would be really you know that’s what I would like to do.”
Kim received a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 2001.
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