Computer scientist from Yale scores Oscar wins for animation

Theodore Kim just won his second academy award, but he's not an animator or actor — but his algorithms have made animated films look much more realistic and lively.
John Loeffler
Theodore Kim accepting his Oscar for Fizt2
Theodore Kim accepting his Oscar for Fizt2


It's not every day that a computer scientist wins an Oscar, but for one Yale associate professor, it's not his first red carpet appearance.

Theodore Kim won an Oscar this year at the Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony, which is usually held prior to the main event which was broadcast on March 12, along with David Eberle, Fernando de Goes, and Audrey Wong of Pixar Animation Studios, for the Fizt2 elastic simulation system.

Fizt2 is an animation simulator for modeling the physical characteristics of soft material like fabric as it moves, according to a Yale interview with Kim.

It's not Kim's first Oscar win, either. That was back in 2012 for Wavelet Turbulence, a program that helps create realistic fire and explosions in animation.

"When I got to college, at Cornell, I wanted to take computer graphics classes," Kim said. "Usually that is pushed off until later in the course sequence, but I was pretty keen to do it. I took it my sophomore year. They also had a graduate-level class, so I took that, too."

"This sort of led me, accidentally, to my first film industry job," Kim continued. "I applied for a summer internship at the special effects studio Rhythm & Hues, and because I had taken a graduate-level class, they mistook me for a Ph.D. student. My work ended up in the first Harry Potter movie."

After getting his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Kim took some academic posts before becoming a senior research scientist at Pixar after his first oscar win. Kim eventually went on to join the faculty at Yale in 2019.

Merging art and science

There has long been a deep connection between art and science, with inventors and engineers like Leonardo da Vinci straddling the line between the two, so Kim's connection to 3D animation shouldn't be too much of a surprise.

"I usually start by asking: What is the artistic result I want?" Kim said. "From there, I can start asking: What is the math that will get me there? Sometimes you find that someone else has already done some of the work, for a different purpose, and you can deploy a piece of it for an artistic purpose. But at some point, you have to drill down into the math yourself. There’s no getting around that. There’s always more interesting math you can uncover because you want your art to look better, and better, and better."

So how many Oscars do Kim and his collaborators have left to win? That remains to be seen, but the odds are good that we'll see more from the Yale computer science professor.

"Every year, my colleagues and I try to ask: What is the thing we haven’t seen yet in a story and what visuals haven’t we seen already? How can we tell those stories, make something that nobody has seen before? That is the driver for selecting problems and deciding what to work on next."

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