USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

SPOTLIGHT ON KAVLI VIDEO CONTEST ADVISOR JEFF KLEISER

By Stacy Jannis

The Kavli Science in Fiction Video Contest challenges Gr 6-12 students to examine the science in fiction, including science fiction movies, TV shows, and games. Our contest advisors include science educators , scientists, and Hollywood scifi visual effects experts. Follow #SciInSciFi on twitter  for contest updates.

Jeff KleiserJeff Kleiser is president and co-founder of the visual effects studio Synthespian Studios. His pioneering work in computer animation has spanned the history of the medium. He has contributed to films with groundbreaking visual effects including Tron, StargateJudge DreddMortal Kombat AnnihilationX-Men, and X2X-Men, the Last StandThe One,  Exorcist The BeginningSon of the Mask , Fantastic FourScary Movie 4 Ra One and Robocop. Kleiser serves on the board of the Visual Effects Society, the Williamstown Film Festival, and is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

When did you first become interested in visual effects and computer animation?

I was a computer science major at Colgate University in 1972, and one of the requirements was that we take a computer course. I was lucky in that Colgate offered the first Computer-Generated Music course offered in the US  (which Dexter Morrill acquired from the late Stanford professor Leland
Smith). This course piqued my interest in creative computing, and when I was doing a work-study for IBM in Syracuse, I happened to live below a professor making CG films at the Newhouse School of Communications. I eventually became partners in Digital Effects, Inc. in NYC with the professor, Judson Rosebush.
What kind of tools did you first use, and what tools do you use now?
At the beginning we had to write the software from scratch. We had some FORTRAN routines for calculating perspective images and driving a plotter and a CRT for shooting on 35mm film, using an IBM 370/155, and we were writing graphics code in APL, a language long lost in the history of
programming.
These days its Maya/MentalRay/Arnold/Renderman/Softimage/Photoshop and a bunch of other tools for tracking and compositing like Nuke.
What kind of skills do you need to excel in this field?
It’s that combination of art and science that make CG people so interesting. It’s what drew me to SIGGRAPH beginning in 1977…people who embrace both art and technology, typically very bright, well-educated, artistically and musically talented, and usually with a great sense of humor.
How does an understanding of  science enter into the visual effects design process?
If we are calculating pixel values to create a scene, one needs to at least appreciate the physics of light and color to design visual effects. Also, we frequently simulate real-world physics in terms of fluids, smoke, fire, cloth, explosions, skin, muscles, facial expressions, and just about anything and everything you’ve ever seen.
SEE AN EXAMPLE OF JEFF KLEISER’S VISUAL EFFECTS IN THE  SCIENCE FICTION SUPER HERO FILM “RA-ONE”.
Ra-One foot assembly
In this sequence, electronic “smart cubes” self- assemble to build up an antagonistic video game character in the real world.
Click on the photo

 

Should science fiction be based in science? 

What for? If a compelling story can be told without real scientific underpinnings, why shouldn’t it be embraced? I personally am more drawn to storylines with their basis in a believable scientific back story, but there are many examples of more free-flowing projects that have been successful.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Survival as an independent visual effects company working out of Western Massachusetts. From a technical standpoint, the Spider-man Ride for Universal required us to pre-distort stereoscopic dome footage to compensate for the moving audience (traveling on a moving motionbase simulator on a track). That was some hairy math that was solved by our longtime tech buddy, Frank Vitz, whom I met at Robert Abel and Associates in 1985.
Do you have a particular favorite visual effects scene?
The opening of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments knocked me out and inspired me to make effects in films.
Tell us about  virtual humans, digital human models, and synthespians.
At my first company, Digital Effects, we had experimented with a crude form of motion capture in which we shot an actor with ping-pong balls attached to a leotard in 35mm film, then projected each frame down onto a platen on an animation stand and traced the position of the balls onto paper cels. These cels were then digitized on a tablet to acquire 2D points of the moving 3D image. We connected those points with a simulation of electric bolts to create a moving “electric man” animation as a test for a feature film that never made it into production. We dabbled in character animation after that, until I met Diana Walzcak at SIGGRAPH ’85 in San Francisco, who was a sculptor interested in CG.
Working at Omnibus in LA, Diana and I created Nestor Sextone, our first Synthespian, and our first film, “Sextone for President” was shown at SIGGRAPH ’86 in Boston. This film featured a character created as a series of clay sculptures by Diana that we digitized and reordered for interpolation using a program written by our old friend and Poser creator, Larry Weinberg. We followed that up with “Don’t Touch Me” featuring motion capture by Motion Analysis of a female synthespian singing and dancing to an original song. Later, we created a CG Mystique character to match Rebecca Romjin’s makeup as Mystique in the X-men Trilogy, and created all the transformations from Mystique into other characters. Also, we used a cyberscan of Bruce Willis and motion tracking of his performance to make him appear 30 years younger in “Surrogates”.
How do you see these technologies being applied in the near future?
Since we can now render photorealistic humans, more and more stunt work will be accomplished with the aid of synthetic characters, and creating characters that look many years younger than the actor will become commonplace. Actors from the past will be exhumed and cast in new roles, accompanied by the inevitable moral, legal, and ethical chaos that will follow.
What inspires you in your work?
I am thrilled to see a project into which I have dedicated a lot of time released to the general public with good reviews and appreciation.
What is your vision for movies and movie technology in the future?
Gaming will likely continue to grow as an entertainment medium, particularly with the coming ubiquity of immersive display equipment like the Oculus Rift, and retinal projection. An unfortunate downside of this will be the tendency toward isolated experience inside a heads-up display and away from the common experience we share as an audience in a theater.
What advice can you give aspiring visual effects designers and science fiction movie directors?
Hold onto your hats, because it will continue to be more and more elaborate and expensive to “wow” the public with great effects. The large companies enjoy a major advantage in that they can afford to maintain large R&D teams that will continue to push the envelope and raise the bar each
year. Definitely do NOT recommend starting a small company in the field of visual effects.
Good luck to All!
Check out Jeff Kleiser’s visual effects work here
Remember there are only four weeks left to enter your video into the Kavli “Science in Fiction” Video Contest! The deadline is March 21, 2014! Enter the contest here
Does science fiction inspire you? So far, our student entrants have explored the science in robots, light sabers, exoskeletons, genetic engineering, time travel, holography and more.
Check out  video contest entries here.