04/26/2017 18:22:16

How to get the fundamental degree in Russia and receive an Oscar

Alexey Stomakhin is a senior software engineer at Walt Disney Animation Studios. He gained his Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Mathematics and Physics at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (2009) and holds a Ph.D. degree in Mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles (2013). Alexey is responsible for developing software for environmental effects simulation. He is best known for pioneering snow simulation in Frozen (2013), fat tissue simulation in Zootopia (2016) and also for developing fluid solver Splash, which was used to create the majority of the water effects in Moana (2016).

“It’s very important for an animated movie to be believable. Characters are usually imaginary and we work hard to make the surrounding world look natural so that the audience believes that all the action in a scene could actually happen,” explains Alexey. Luckily, physicists have had plenty of time to come up with laws that describe nature and mathematicians have spent centuries finding out how to solve almost all these complicated equations. Sometimes the Disney team uses real laws of physics: we solve Navier-Stokes equation for simulating splashes in a pool where a hippo has just jumped into, and use thermodynamics when computing effects for lava streaming down a volcano. But the most challenging tasks are computing magical, unreal events. “For example, (spoiler alert!) there is a scene in Moana (2016) when the water parts and a path opens through the sea. Nothing like this ever happens in the real world so there is no physical law to describe it. We changed the direction of the gravity force in an existing mathematical model – and created the physics of Moana’s world. Sometimes we sacrifice physical accuracy for aesthetics – once we computed dolphins jumping out the water at 100 miles/hour to make the splashes look nice, while the normal speed is much slower – about 20-30 miles/hour,” says Alexey.

“The most difficult part of my job is trying to figure out which physical law I can apply to the specific problem after the director has told us what he wants to see. I go through all my knowledge of theory and choose which section to look at,” he tells us. “I would like to thank Vladimir Ovchinkin, my physics professor at MIPT, for teaching it all to me.”

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