Meet Physics-Based Animation expert Christopher Batty, [BSc/04, Computer Science]

Honey dripping onto a table. Waves tossing in a stormy sea. Hair blowing in the wind. If you think these things are unrelated, you obviously don’t know Dr. Christopher Batty’s work. An assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, Batty’s handiwork can be seen in such films as “Superman Returns”, “Cursed” and “Scooby-Doo 2”, to name only a few.

Over the last decade, Batty’s research has focused on physics-based animation, a specialty within the broader field of computer science. Combining elements of mechanics, geometry, numerical methods, and computer animation to approximate and predict the motion of objects and materials, its primary applications are within the film and visual effects industries.

Variational Stokes: A Unified Pressure-Viscosity Solver for Accurate Viscous Liquids (Youtube).

“What sets it apart from more traditional animation techniques is that rather than an artist controlling every single tiny detail by hand, we use computers and the laws of physics to automatically generate realistic movement of various visually interesting phenomena, such as splashing water, burning buildings, curling hair, or wrinkling cloth. This strategy makes it far easier to produce scenes for live-action or animated films that would otherwise be too labour-intensive, dangerous, expensive, or even completely impossible to shoot on a real-world movie set or to realistically animate by hand.

“In effect, we are combining ideas from computer science, mathematics, and physics to create software that helps directors and visual effects artists more easily achieve their artistic vision: we deal with the physics so they can focus on the story they want to tell. These kinds of software tools are what make possible the water in “Moana”, the snow in “Frozen”, and the fiery explosions in recent “Star Wars” films.”

Growing up, the young Batty was particularly interested in science fiction and fantasy in books, movies and games. A confirmed “Trekkie”, he became interested in computer programming in junior high, after hearing that a classmate was coding his own video game.

“At first, this seemed like something entirely magical to me, and not a feat that an ordinary 8th grader should be able to do. As I gradually learned more about it, I realized it wasn’t in fact magic, and I became completely hooked. I devoured books on programming and began coding up “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure”-style text games and role-playing games with very simple graphics. Later, in high school physics classes, it occurred to me that I could take what I was learning about Newton’s laws and projectile motion of objects and put those equations to use in animating falling or jumping objects in Mario-type games. I didn’t realize then that combining physics and computer science in this way would eventually come to define my career.”

Christopher Batty [BSc/04], recipient of the 2019 Faculty of Science Honoured Alumni Awards.
Looking back, Batty says learning more in the fields of social and political sciences would likely have helped him. Too many, he says, are convinced that computer science is the cure-all for every problem faced by society. Batty believes that our world would benefit from computer scientists who are more fully cognizant of the impact their work has on humans, both positive and negative.

It wasn’t until Batty spent a co-op internship at Frantic Films (a then-local visual effects studio) that he “stumbled into visual effects”, setting him on the path to what would ultimately become his current research focus. He completed his BSc in Computer Science (Hons) in 2004, while still working for Frantic Films, developing physics-based animation software. Batty earned his Ph.D from the University of British Columbia in 2010, following it up with a Banting post-doc at Columbia University from 2011 to 2013.

Since arriving at Waterloo, Batty has developed techniques for solid-fluid interaction and highly viscous liquids. These were so well received by the computer graphics industry that they were integrated into software packages used widely throughout the business. He and his students have collaborated with high-profile animation companies such as Side Effects Software (Houdini), Weta Digital, and Exocortex Technologies.

While his animations usually form the basis of special effects in films, they do have wider scientific applications. For example, geometric techniques that Batty helped develop for animating the shape and motion of soap bubbles have since been adopted by computational biologists to simulate and predict the behaviour of cell division.In addition, Batty has published numerous scientific articles on his research in the field’s top scholarly journals, including the Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGGRAPH. He currently sits on the editorial boards of ACM Transactions on Graphics and Computer Graphics Forum.

In the midst of all this, Batty still manages to savour those special moments, as when he is exploring some math or physics problem and has a sudden flash of insight that he believes will allow him to solve it. He says that the (sometime) cliché of experiencing a “eureka” moment is unequalled, especially when he’s managed to solve a previously unsolvable problem.

“My second favourite moment happens much later, when I have put in all the work necessary to thoroughly develop the idea, turn it into working code, and finally verify that it indeed produces exactly the right kind of animation or new mathematical result. The great thing about being a professor is that I not only get to experience these moments myself, but I also often get to share them with my students and collaborators.

“These days, I draw a great deal of inspiration from the students I interact with: their enthusiasm, their tenacity, and their creativity are incredibly infectious. It’s an honour to teach and collaborate with future computer scientists every day when I go to work. It’s also particularly inspiring to see more young women and other traditionally under-represented groups pursuing education and careers in computer science, often persisting against obstacles that I never had to face.”

By Jo Davies

2019 Faculty of Science Alumni Awards Event

Recognizing graduates who have made remarkable contributions to discovering the unknown, inventing the future, and advancing the well-being of society.

January, 31, 2019
Marshall McLuhan Hall (University Centre)
University of Manitoba, Fort Garry Campus
3:30 pm- 5:00 pm

The event includes a Careers in Science Panel Discussion and Q&A where our distinguished guests will share their experiences and offer advice to students about selecting areas of study, navigating career paths, and using their degrees in sometimes unconventional ways.

A reception will follow. Everyone is welcome to attend.

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