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By Joanne Lamphere Beckham
November 1, 2002

Christina de Juan sits in front of her computer screen, holding a stylus in her long, graceful fingers. She traces the outline of a two-dimensional (2-D) figure in six different poses on the screen, then saves wire-frame shapes of the figure as the individual key frames. Using mathematical algorithms and the software package, Maya, to interpolate between the key frames, she causes the figure to leap across the screen. Her goal is to develop software that will make it easier and more cost effective to use computers to produce visually compelling animated films.

“I’d like to make it possible to produce films with the stunning graphics of “Dinosaur” but at a much lower cost,” she says.

De Juan is one of three computer science doctoral students – all women – working on creating animation software under the tutelage of Assistant Professor Bobby Bodenheimer, who joined

Animation by Christina de Juan

the Vanderbilt faculty in 2000. After earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, Bodenheimer also worked with the Microsoft graphics research group and the Georgia Tech Animation Lab. Christina’s fellow students include Jing Wang from Jilin, China,
and Leah Elizabeth “Betsy” Williams from Inverness, Mississippi. Wang plans to return to China to teach at the college level, and Williams’s career plans also include teaching at a small college.

De Juan, who holds the Harold Stirling Vanderbilt Graduate Scholarship and the IBM Research Scholarship, is interested in character and data-driven animation. After completing her Ph.D., she hopes to pursue a career making animated films. Last summer, she made progress toward that goal by gaining an internship with DreamWorks SKG, producers of the animated films “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and – through their subsidiary PDI – the popular “Shrek.”

“At DreamWorks, I worked on developing a software program to assist in the animation of three-dimensional (3-D) characters for an upcoming feature film,” de Juan says. The working title of that film, which is scheduled for release in a year or two, is “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.”

Animation Fascination

As a high school student in Orlando, Fla., de Juan would fill the margins of her textbooks with cartoon characters that moved when she flipped the pages.

“I’ve always been fascinated by animation,” she recalls, “especially traditional animated films produced by Warner Brothers and Disney.” “Sleeping Beauty,” she says, is one of her favorites.

In classic animated films, every frame was drawn by hand. That process is very expensive, so filmmakers have recently turned to computer animation to produce the time-consuming details in their films.

Animation by Christina de Juan

In 1982 “Tron,” a MAGI production, was the first full-length movie to employ computer animation extensively. In 1986, Pixar’s “Luxor Jr.” was the first computer-animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award. In 1988, another Pixar animation, “Tin Toy,” was the first to win an Academy Award. The very popular “Toy Story,” produced by Pixar/Disney in 1995, was the first full-length, fully computer-generated 3-D animation.

While computer animation is cost effective, Professor Bodenheimer says, there are tradeoffs. The quality of the animation can be poor, and problems arise when two-dimensional figures drawn by artists are merged with computer-generated three-dimensional elements such as backgrounds, minor characters, and other objects.

“There's a gap – a digital divide – between the world of computers and the world of traditional art and animators,” he says. “Several artists have tried – some successfully – to bridge that gap, but both sides will have to work to eliminate it.

Mentoring program opens doors

De Juan wasn’t dreaming of a career in filmmaking when she elected to earn a B.A. in philosophy and a B.S. in computer science from the University of Central Florida in 1999. “I knew computers were going to pervade most aspects of our lives, and I wanted to feel comfortable with them,” she recalls.

Then an opportunity arose to participate in a mentoring program for women majoring in computer science, sponsored by the Computing Research Association. The program paired de Juan with Professor Jessica Hodgins, who was working in computer animation at Georgia Tech. That experience inspired de Juan to pursue her master’s degree in computer science at Georgia Tech and her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt.

De Juan’s research is aimed at finding a seamless way to join two-dimensional and three-dimensional elements. “Research really motivates me,” she says. “I have several ideas on how to improve animation, how to blend 2-D and 3-D figures seamlessly. I also like the fact that I get to be creative and also use my technical skills.”

De Juan’s future could include research and teaching at the college level, but first she wants to try for a career in filmmaking. In the interim, she is working on designing a software program that will speed up the process of generating animated sequences and help the artists create both stunning graphics and cost-effective animated films.

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Bobby Bodenheimer’s home page


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