UC Berkeley computer science professor wins Academy Award

Michael Yada/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley computer science professor James O’Brien received an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement Saturday from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

O’Brien was recognized for his computer graphics research, which served as the foundation for the systems that create fracture and deformation simulations. Software based on his research was used for films such as “Avatar,” “Prometheus,” “Skyfall,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” among others.

O’Brien conducted research on simulations that assisted in the development of the Kali Destruction System and the Digital Molecular Matter toolkit, systems that formed a way to model scalable and realistic fracture and deformation simulations. When buildings are destroyed and broken apart in a movie, software based on O’Brien’s research is used to determine how each building breaks.

O’Brien began his research on destruction simulations for his doctoral thesis at Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing, and continued this work when he began teaching at UC Berkeley in 2000.

O’Brien said he always had the film industry in mind when conducting his research. His work has also been used for surgical simulations, TV shows like “Game of Thrones and video games such as “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.” He said the evaluation process for his Academy Award was surprisingly rigorous.

At universities such as UC Berkeley, he said, there are a lot of long-term research projects that likely wouldn’t receive funding from sources outside academia. Innovations such as his research would never happen without support from the campus and its strong connections to the computer graphics industry, he added.

O’Brien currently teaches Computer Science 184, an upper division course covering the basics of computer graphics, including techniques used in destruction modeling.

“Teaching is a lot of fun,” he said. “It goes hand in hand with research. It is essentially taking something you know a lot about and spending time talking about it.”

Current CS 184 student Shiv Sundram called O’Brien a “god,” and said in a Facebook message that he was an inspiring and well-connected professor. Another CS 184 student, Olivia Thet, said in a Facebook message that O’Brien was an impressive professor even before his Oscar win, and often shares industry experience with his students.

“His personality is great too — it makes two-hour lectures surprisingly fun,” she said.

O’Brien said students should try to get involved in the faculty research that happens on campus.

“It is a great opportunity for undergraduates,” he said. “Most focus on doing as well as they can in their classes, but getting involved in the labs is vital.”

Contact Cassie Ippaso at [email protected].