Meet Oliver James, Chief Scientist at DNEG

Celebrating scientific achievement in VFX during British Science Week

As we celebrate British Science Week, we’d like to offer you a glance into the intricate relationship between visual effects and the world of science. Introducing our Chief Scientist Oliver James. Oliver has a degree in Physics from the University of Oxford and has over 25 years of experience in the Film industry. Over the years, he has pushed the boundaries of visual effects through research and development, ensuring scientific accuracy, encouraging innovation and finding new and creative solutions to each challenge brought to him.

What is your job title and how would you describe your role at DNEG?

My job title is “Chief Scientist”, and I write software used by artists to create visual effects in movies. DNEG uses lots of off-the-shelf software, but in order to support the ever-growing complexity of work and to create new effects, we write a lot of custom software too. I focus on projects with a scientific or mathematical aspect to them.

Can you tell us about your background and what led you to work in Visual Effects?

Almost as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in photography, physics and computing. I spent early parts of my career in all three of those independently: I was coding from about the age of 12 and later spent summer holidays as an intern at IBM; My degree was in physics, and I spent several years working in a photographic studio. What I discovered in visual effects was a way to combine all three of these interests in one job: in visual effects we use physics and computing to synthesise virtual photographs.

Can you tell us more about the relationship between Physics and Visual Effects and why scientific accuracy is important in filmmaking?

Imagine you’re engrossed in a pivotal scene in a movie, but suddenly you notice something’s not quite right. It might be the way a spacecraft moves, or the way light glints off a surface. If that shot’s been created with VFX, then the chances are that something’s wrong with the physics. You may not even be conscious of it, but for a fraction of a second you’re distracted, and the connection between you and the story is interrupted. The purpose of VFX is to engage the audience more fully with the story being told, and getting the physics right is just the starting point.

This used to be my full answer, however we’ve found that there are additional benefits in exploring a bit deeper. Our experience working on the visual effects of ‘Interstellar’ showed that we could use science as a source of inspiration. We started off with no preconceived idea of what the black hole should look like in that movie, so we modelled one, mathematically, with the help of Professor Kip Thorne.

We found that the deeper we dived into the physics, the more complex and intriguing the images became. In this case the science didn’t just inspire the look of the black hole, it actually created the images: every pixel represents a solution of Einstein’s equations.

What other connections are there between your work and the world of science?

The collaboration with Kip Thorne has evolved into some interesting areas. We started off using science to keep the audience engaged with the story in the movie, but it seemed that the movie was also engaging audiences with fundamental science. Paul Franklin (DNEG’s Creative Director) & I continued this idea by teaming up with Kip Thorne & Hans Zimmer to create a celebration of science (specifically, the discovery of gravitational waves) in “The Warped Side of The Universe”; and a celebration of the Apollo Missions, “Once Upon a Time on the Moon”, two concerts performed at the Starmus festivals. “Starsounds” was a collaboration between DNEG, Brian Eno and Dr Garik Israelian.

More recently, DNEG collaborated with Brian Cox and created visuals for his “Universal” tour.

Would you encourage more scientists to join the film industry and why?

The examples of our collaboration with science are not our typical work – the link to science in most of our work is usually less clear-cut. However, the skills needed to solve the problems we face will be familiar to most scientists: distilling an often vague brief into a clear problem statement; testing possible approaches to solving the problem; and iteratively improving on the solution. We find scientists often thrive in our development teams.

Photo credit : Max Alexander, Starmus

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