Columbia Engineering Celebrates Supporting Role in Oscar-Winning Jungle Book

Eitan Grinspun describes his work in an interview with Mike Massimino for our Extreme Engineering series.

When The Jungle Book won the 2017 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects last night, Columbia Engineering’s Computer Graphics Group celebrated as their own technology contributed to movie history.

Throughout The Jungle Book, the animated plants and trees move in life-like ways as the wind blows through them and monkeys swing on the branches. Those realistic movements were made possible by technology designed by Associate Professor of Computer Science Eitan Grinspun and his students.

Grinspun’s team simulates movement using the geometry of physics and computer algorithms based on a field of mathematics called discrete differential geometry. Their work has helped to make scenes more lush and believable in several Walt Disney Animation Studios movies. In Tangled, the technology made the fabrics of clothing drape and flow. In Moana, it was used to model the realistic motion of the characters’ hair.

“Having this opportunity to compute physical phenomena for the big screen is so exciting,” Grinspun said. “In doing so, we are forced to take a hard look at the world around us through the lens of algorithmic computation, and to understand how fundamental physical principles translate into central questions of computer science. And of course, seeing the end result integrated into the artistic process—in a blockbuster film—makes our research into the mathematics all the more fulfilling.”

The technology also has uses beyond the silver screen. For example, it can help predict a wide variety of movements, such as how bacteria with flagella will move or how fiber-optic cables will coil on the ocean floor, and it can enhance medical simulations. Its development has benefitted from the work of several generations of Columbia Engineering graduate students, including Miklos Bergou (MS’07, MPhil’09, PhD’10), the first author of some of the original papers; and Samantha Ainsley (BS’11, MS’12), Jungseock Joo (MS’10), and current PhD student Breannan Smith (MS’09, MPhil’12), who all spent time with the movie’s visual effects designers at Weta Digital.

The Jungle Book – a blend of computer-generated imagery and live action – reimagines Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 story about the adventures of an Indian boy named Mowgli who is raised by wolves in the jungle and can talk with the animals. The 2017 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects went to The Jungle Book’s visual effects editors: Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones, and Dan Lemmon. They also won the British Academy Film Awards for Special Visual Effects for The Jungle Book on Feb. 12.

—by Stacy Morford

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