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The Disney Animator
Spotlight on Hidden Physicists
The Disney Animator
Ernest Petti, Technical Supervisor, Walt Disney Animation StudiosBy:
Ernest Petti, Technical Supervisor, Walt Disney Animation Studios
Like many physicists, I have always enjoyed learning and discovering how and why things work. I majored in physics and computer science at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio, and after graduation, I developed prototype software for cockpit displays at Rockwell Collins. After a few years I had a better sense of what I truly wanted to do. I wanted to work on visually integrating physics and computer science in a way that would entertain people. So I earned an MS in computer science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, focusing on computer graphics.
I then applied for a variety of jobs in computer games, visual effects, and animation. Fortunately, I landed a job at Walt Disney Animation Studios, where I’ve been ever since.
I started at Disney in the software group developing lighting and fur-generation software. After becoming interested in the artistic side of production, I was a lighting artist on Chicken Little. An almost entirely artistic position, the role required me to think about ways that light ought to physically behave in a scene to achieve the artistic goals set by the director.
“I am constantly referring back to my background in physics.”
I continued in both lighting and shader development roles on the next several shows. The fascinating aspect of shader development was writing code that described how objects made of different materials interact with light in a shot. I was algorithmically describing the physics of the computer world in an artistically controllable way. This synthesis of my technical backgrounds and my newfound artistic skills was a great way to bring together everything I had learned over my education and career.
Today I am the technical supervisor on Zootopia, an animated film scheduled to open in the spring of 2016. In this role I coordinate all the research and development for the film; I work with our technology groups on tool and process enhancement, supervise the technical directors on the show, and do show-specific research and development. As we move into production, my role will transition to ensuring that artists are able to keep working smoothly and any technical hiccups are short-lived.
As I try to provide artists with a tool set that is physically plausible but artistically controllable, I am constantly referring back to my background in physics. The basic problem-solving skills I learned in physics have served me well and helped me to understand the fundamentals of how things work. They’ve given me a broad base of knowledge with which to face the challenges I’ve experienced in a variety of roles at Disney.