Our Campus: Oscar winner Robert Bridson is coding the natural world

If you’ve seen a major Hollywood Blockbuster film within the past decade, there’s a high chance that you’ve encountered the work of Robert Bridson. The UBC adjunct computer science prof has had a hand, directly and indirectly, in the special effects productions on many well-known films, such as Avatar and Life of Pi. Bridson is now being awarded with a Technical Oscar for his outstanding work.

Bridson is taking home a Technical Achievement Award for his innovations in storing volume data, which he designed 13 years ago while working on his PhD at Stanford University.

"If you’re doing an explosion, then you might need to track, at every point in space, digitally, how much smoke is there, what’s the temperature. And you can use that information to generate the image of the smoke cloud or you can use it to solve for how the smoke cloud should move according to the laws of nature," Bridson said. "But underlying all that, you need an efficient way to store that data. So this really has to do with good compact representations of data.”

A clear example of Bridson’s work can be found in the 2013 science fiction thriller Gravity.

“There’s a bit I was involved with where there’s a fire onboard the spaceship. So they wanted the flames to look really realistic, but at the same time, it’s supposed to be in zero gravity. So there’s no way that you can do that down on earth," Bridson said. "One of the best ways to do that, is find out what the physics equations are and get the computer to solve those equations for you. And then whatever pipes out, presumably, should look a lot like it would in real life, because you’re actually simulating.”

The Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards merit innovations in film-making that have significantly impacted the industry and the course of film production. The ceremony is generally held a few weeks prior to the mainstream Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, California. This year, the Sci-Tech Awards ceremony will be hosted by actors Miles Teller and Margot Robbie.

A Newfoundland native, Bridson completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Waterloo University, then went on to Stanford to work on his PhD. In 2003, Bridson began working as a professor at UBC, teaching computer graphics and scientific computing. He now works primarily with software engineers as a mathematician-researcher.

“Generally everything I work on has to do with either the geometry or the mathematics behind the physics that we can use to make tools that artists can then make these amazing effects up with," said Bridson. "I was always interested in [the questions,] 'how can we simulate the real world on a computer? How can we create what’s happening around you digitally and understand it that way?'”

Bridson’s career path came about somewhat spontaneously. Initially, his interests lay in pure mathematics, but while completing his PhD, Bridson ended up working with a professor who was interested in computer science.

“If you get interested in something, really dig deep into it. Don’t trust that the experts have already figured it all out … I don’t think it’s that you need to soak up everything. Just be prepared for your interests and your plans to change.”

Humility is definitely a defining feature of Bridson. When asked about his success and what advice he could give to students, his immediate response (with a smile) was: “I’m just one data point.”

Needless to say, Bridson’s impact on the world of contemporary film-making has been substantial.

“If you can dream it, artists can make it now, because of the computer.”