Having spent seven years working in the visual effects industry, Jon Cohen, an Academy Award winner for technical achievement, recently came to the University to speak about his experience in Hollywood — everything from “Avatar” to Jessica Alba.
Cohen graduated from Brown University in 2000 with a degree in Mathematics and Computer Science, and received a fast introduction to the media culture while looking for potential roommates in Los Angeles.
“Every single one of them mentioned to me that they had a screenplay. I was like ‘Oh my God, where am I living?’ ”
Cohen started working at Rhythm and Hues, a visual effects studio known for producing digital animals such as the original Coca-Cola polar bears, Scooby-Doo and Richard Parker, the life-like tiger from “Life of Pi.”
Cohen detailed the exciting challenge of developing technical tools that artists can use to create the characters they’ve envisioned.
“For most people who work in these kinds of computational sciences, the concept that you could have this type of technology and put it in the hands of an artist is mind-blowing, like, how do you even present it in a way that makes sense?” Cohen said. “So they’ve built this huge, complicated set of tools alongside the artists who’ve learned how to use them. Then you can do something like Richard Parker, which is an amazing combination of both technology and artistry.”
Cohen talked about how movies like “Avatar” have fostered groundbreaking developments in the technical world and expanded the limits to an artist’s creative capacity.
“James Cameron says, ‘I want a giant blue thing that looks like the actor,’ and that sounds crazy,” Cohen began. “He had this vision of what he wanted, but the technology wasn’t good enough yet. He did three tests over the years, (the second) one I worked on at Rhythm and Hues in 2001, so that was a hard problem to solve. It took 15 years and lots of studios trying different things until one of them figured out how to do it at the quality that (Cameron) was happy with.”
Cohen had quite the difficult problem to solve himself as a technical supervisor on “Spiderman 3” when director Sam Raimi said he wanted a character made of sand.
“(Sandman) had to look realistic, but that doesn’t make sense because realistic sand doesn’t form into the shape of a person,” Cohen explained. “That’s the artistic challenge: What would it be like if sand had a mind of its own and could form into shapes, but was still subject to the laws of physics? Then there’s the technical side because how would you even simulate a tool for an artist to control 100 billion sand grains?”
Cohen’s problem-solving skills eventually struck Oscar gold in 2008, when he and three team members developed software for fluid simulation and volumetric modeling that has now been used on more than 50 films, including “The Chronicles of Riddick,” “Superman Returns” and “Happy Feet.”
Cohen learned the definition of “five-star” when he attended the Technical Academy Awards ceremony, which took place at the famously upscale Beverly Wilshire hotel, hosted by Jessica Alba.
“There was a reporter at our table and the wait staff spilled a glass of wine all over him, so they took his jacket off, whisked it away, brought it back ten minutes later, dry-cleaned, pressed and they were like, ‘Here’s your jacket, sir,’ ” Cohen recalled. “And I just said, ‘Wow, so this is what it’s like!’ We were all joking like we should all spill some wine on each other and say, ‘Hey, will you dry-clean my suit?’ ”
But despite the success, nearly five years ago when Cohen wrapped “Spiderman 3,” he decided to get out of the movie business, partially for professional reasons.
“In the visual effects world (of the film industry), the career path up is always towards production, like a digital effects supervisor, and that’s a totally artistic world,” Cohen explained. “So for someone like me, if you stay as a technical person, writing software and tools, the ceiling is very low and the career path taps out pretty early on.”
Cohen started working for NVIDIA, a California-based technology company, and has been telecommuting since he moved to Ann Arbor when his wife gained acceptance to a University Ph.D. program. He currently serves as Senior Manager of CUDA software library development.
When asked if he’d ever considering getting “back in the business,” Cohen talked about possibly rejoining the world of entertainment, just not the world of film.
“The visual effects industry (in movies) is kind of dying in the United States, and it’s not fun to work in an industry that’s shrinking, but the gaming industry is expanding,” Cohen explained.
Whatever the future holds, Cohen has left a legacy in the film industry with the software he developed, helping countless filmmakers bring what they imagine to the screen. And he will always have another claim to fame: He shook Jessica Alba’s hand.