Real or Virtual? Computing’s New Tools for Real-Time Animation Challenges

A lithe figure walks to the edge of a chasm, leaps across, sits down and takes a breath of relief. Her lifelike movements (on a computer screen) depict Alla Safonova’s innovative algorithms for computer modeling of realistic motion.

Safonova, an assistant professor in the Computer and Information Science (CIS) department, was recruited to the multi-disciplinary CG@ Penn (Computer Graphics at Penn) program within CIS in September of 2007, and is leading productive new realms of research in animation methods.  “Alla’s presence puts us into a highly visible and competitive group for attracting excellent graduate students.”” says Norman Badler, CIS professor and Director of CG@Penn.

Safonova specializes in efficient techniques for translating and refining vast amounts of data generated by motion capture cameras into lifelike animation. During her graduate school and post-doctoral years at Carnegie Mellon University, Safonova established herself as first author on two papers on these techniques that were published in SIGGRAPH, a highly selective computer graphics academic-industry venue. “Recruiting Alla was a signature event,” says Badler. “We were competing with other universities that recognized her achievements and with industry as well.”

Like the CG@Penn program as a whole, the course Safonova teaches, Physically-Based Animation, integrates hard-core computing, mathematical modeling and aesthetic challenges. Graduate students and advanced undergraduates learn how to simulate natural-looking human motion and movement in deformable objects such as cloth, explosions, smoke and fluid for special effects in movies, video games or other applications such as surgical systems.

The vivid images produced by her students are just one indication of the distinctiveness of the CG@Penn program. The undergraduate Digital Media Design (DMD) component bridges technology and art—integrating courses from across the Penn campus in computer science, math, communications, cinema studies and fine art. “DMD is one of the most successful interdisciplinary initiatives at Penn,” says Badler. “It has attracted an exceptional sort of student: not only are they high scoring and high achieving, but they are interesting and creative.” Graduates of DMD are actively recruited to positions at such giants in animation, graphics and special effects as Walt Disney Studios, DreamWorks Animation, Pixar Animation Studios, Industrial Light & Magic and Electronic Arts.  Graduates of CG@Penn’s Center for Human Modeling and Simulation have an interesting career path. One third of its Ph.D. graduates work in academia, and the remaining nearly two-thirds work in the private sector, typically at electronic media entertainment firms.

Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “Real or Virtual? Computing’s New Tools for Real-Time Animation Challenges,” by Jessica Stein Diamond.

Interested? Learn more!

Alla Safonova’s Faculty Profile
Norm Badler’s Faculty Profile
Computer Graphics at Penn

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