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​Science Society enjoys lecture on movie special effects

Dr Hoyle is unique amongst Science Society speakers so far in that she has won an Oscar. 

She works in the field of visual effects, the manipulation of images to work with live action. Integrating her work with film of real objects and people she can bring movie magic to the screen making the dangerous, expensive and even the impossible come true.

This field of special effects really started with the work of George Lucas and the first Star Wars films. At the core of the business is computer programming and that is where people like Dr. Hoyle with a degree in mathematics from Oxford and a PhD in computational engineering from Southampton University come in. She works for the rapidly growing London based company Double Negative. She described the atmosphere in the company as art school meets research lab. Staff have a huge range of backgrounds from artists to physicists and programmers.

Reflecting on her career, Dr Hoyle said she knew she wanted to use the maths that she enjoyed but was not sure how. Her grandfather was one of the great names in British Physics of the 20th Century, Fred Hoyle, so a talent for applying maths is probably in her genes. She researched computational modeling and fluid flow for her PhD. She started to feel that she could use these skills to do more than model existing effects, but to be more creative. Six years later and she has worked on a number of major movie releases from Harry Potter to Batman, Captain America and winning her Oscar for Inception.

She described some of the processes she goes through in her job. Taking the example of Batman’s motorbike she showed how from a scan of the original prop she built a computer model containing all of the moving parts, bit by bit. Each part was then modeled so it would work just as it would in the real world. That is not strictly true however, as the real bike with wide tyres could not turn at all well and certainly could not climb walls. Dr Hoyle’s maths background enabled her to use equations that describe the motion of each part and how they interact. Tiny details including almost hidden suspension parts are included or else the audience would find not find the experience believable.

Dr Hoyle works mostly on vehicles and machines but she also showed us the process for making creatures using VFX. The model must have correct anatomical detail such as the jointed skeleton and muscles moving under skin to make it look real. So a detailed study of the anatomy of the creature to be modeled is necessary. This is obviously harder for dragons and aliens, but the effort put in is still the same.

Other preparation work has to include how crashes and collapses work. An extended clip of Harry Potter and friends making a daring escape with the help of a dragon was shown and in each scene, the complicated combination of live action and models (massive background views, dragons, spells, fire, destroyed buildings) were briefly revealed. Working with fire and cloud is very complex and an understanding of combustion, fluid flow and turbulence is needed with some high level maths such as calculus and iterative techniques thrown in.

Dr Hoyle finished by observing that this is a growing field. Her own company has grown from 150 to 1100 staff since she joined. The opportunity to use Maths and Physics skills and then spend all day playing with them was obviously something she relished and encouraged others to consider. She is about to start work on a new film but was not allowed to tell us what it was, but her most recent work will be revealed this summer in the new Batman movie.

Dr. Michael Kearney, Head of Science at Bryanston