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Animations that are true to life

UC Merced

UC Merced News highlighted Department of Mathematics visiting assistant professor, Vu Thai Luan’s research collaboration. Professor Luan is developing computational tools that will allow animators to produce the next generation of true-to-life simulations.

Imagine going to see the latest Pixar movie. You’re sitting in the theater enjoying the film, when you begin to notice the astounding level of detail in the animation. On screen, water is rippling and leaves are flittering with an almost uncanny realism. It’s art imitating life with incredible verisimilitude, and it makes you wonder how the animators are able to pull off such lifelike effects.

The answer, at least in part, lies in mathematics. With support from the National Science Foundation, UC Merced professor Mayya Tokman and her collaborators — professor Dominik Michels of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology and Stanford University, and professor Vu Thai Luan of Southern Methodist University — are developing the computational tools that will allow animators to produce the next generation of true-to-life simulations.

Tokman recently returned from SIGGRAPH 2017, the world’s largest annual conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques, where a paper she coauthored with Michels and Luan was publicly debuted. Though the paper’s title — “A stiffly accurate integrator for elastodynamic problems” — may not immediately conjure images of lifelike animation, the new computer simulation methods described within are particularly relevant to the field.

“Elastodynamic systems are systems of bendable things,” Tokman explained. “In computer graphics, the best example is hair.”

When earlier generations of animators wanted to depict hair tousling or clothes wrinkling as a character moved about, they’d have to produce frame-by-frame drawings of the action. A realistic portrayal of hair, for example, would require repeatedly redrawing each individual strand in motion. The process was prohibitively time-consuming, which is why older animation tends to lack the lifelike flair of more recent work.

“For complicated effects, there was a need for easier methods than frame-by-frame redrawing,” Tokman said. “In computer graphics, for many effects people moved away from animation towards simulation. They developed mathematical equations that described the behavior and dynamics of a system, a system like hair shaking.”

New computational methods developed by Tokman and her collaborators can be used to produce more realistic renderings of waving flags and moving bacteria, among other applications. READ MORE