Shedding Light Behind-the-Scenes

Shedding Light Behind-the-Scenes

Drew Olbrich

How many computer scientists get the chance to accept an Academy Award? Drew Olbrich (CS'92) just did.

At the February 9th Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation, the Carnegie Mellon University alumnus and his colleagues were honored for developing Light — an interactive application for lighting animated film scenes.

"When I learned of the award, I was extremely surprised and excited, then a few seconds later, I realized I'd have to wear a tuxedo and speak in front of 500 people," Olbrich laughed.

He was even more surprised when a colorful quip from that speech regarding "all my geeky endeavors" was picked up by news sites like the Huffington Post.

Portions of the Scientific and Technical Awards presentation will be aired during Sunday's televised Academy Awards ceremony.

Light, jointly written by Olbrich, Dan Wexler and Lawrence Kesteloot in 1996, allows artists to control the position and colors of lights and shadows in scenes, providing uniquely fast and accurate feedback.

The application has been used on 18 animated films, including "Shrek," "Madagascar," and "Kung Fu Panda," and 12 live-action effect films, including "Batman and Robin" and "Minority Report."

Unlike other Academy Awards that recognize accomplishments made during a given year, the Sci-Tech awards honor achievements with a "proven record of contributing significant value to the process of making motion pictures." Fifteen years after its creation, Light is still in continuous use.

Olbrich, an upstate New Yorker who began computer programming at the age of 10, came to Carnegie Mellon for its renowned computer science program and credits the university with not only "providing me with an excellent education in CS," but also helping him to secure an internship at Silicon Graphics.

This led to his first full-time position at Pacific Data Images (PDI), a creator of computer graphics effects for TV commercials and live action films. PDI was soon acquired by DreamWorks and Olbrich found himself developing lighting and character animation tools as they created "Antz" and "Shrek," among numerous other films.

In keeping with the CMU entrepreneurial bug, Olbrich left PDI/DreamWorks in 2006 to enter the startup world, and he's now doing user experience design and implementation at Tasty Labs.

He's also a successful iPhone-iPad app developer, having written The Fourth Dimension, a humorous and accessible interactive book explaining an abstract mathematics topic.

"I wrote the app entirely for fun and incorporated 3D user interface techniques that I picked up at PDI/DreamWorks," Olbrich remarked, "I figured that I'd sell at most 50 copies."

The well-reviewed app quickly sold 9,000 copies, shocking its developer.

Also honored at the February 9th ceremony was Doug James, CMU assistant professor of computer science and robotics from 2002 to 2006, for co-inventing Wavelet Turbulence software.


Photo by Richard Harbaugh/AMPAS


Related Links: Read the press release | Olbrich's website | School of Computer Science