WHAT HE DOES
Creates effects for huge-budget motion pictures.
where he doeS It
New Zealand, Southern California
Does cutting-edge research with the most advanced equipment and computing platforms available; meets A-list Hollywood stars and puts dots on their faces.
This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.
Mark Sagar is taking a break from making faces for major motion pictures. It’s a sunny Tuesday in early summer, and he’s whipping up a couple of cappuccinos in a lounge at Weta Digital, the hot-as-the-sun special-effects house behind such blockbusters as Avatar, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the 2005 remake of King Kong. Based in a funky suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, the studio’s decor is all frowsy chic: This lounge we’re in houses a life-size stuffed gorilla, a pool table, and several racks of movie costumes. There’s a gourmet kitchen whose counters are heaped with delectables. The walls are covered with movie posters and brass dinosaurs (not life-size).
During my visit, Weta’s wizards are conjuring the dazzle for the highly anticipated DreamWorks/Steven Spielberg movie Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. But as a harried Weta publicist informs me weeks after I conclude my interviews, the effects house wants nothing—nothing—said about Tintin. Or else I’ll never eat lunch in that town again.
For now, though, breakfast is served. Sagar sprinkles cinnamon and marvels at the existence of a movieland and supercomputing powerhouse on this island, where all the other noteworthy industries involve sheep or fast sailboats. “What’s the chance of a high-tech film company existing on an island in the South Pacific?” Sagar wonders.
Left out of this small talk, somehow, is the fact that just moments ago he learned that he and three colleagues won an Academy Award. More on that later.
Sagar is as comfortable with art and aesthetics as he is with code and computers. The art/tech tug-of-war began in early childhood, in Kenya, where Sagar’s father was a systems analyst and programmer for the East African Railways. At home, his father would build radios and disassemble televisions, firing the youngster’s imagination with the wonders of modern electronics. His mother, a painter, took young Sagar to game parks, where she would point out the animals and sketch them for him. “From the beginning, my influences were half technical and scientific and half artistic,” he says.
He got a B.S. degree in physics and math in 1988 at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, where the family had moved when Sagar was 4. He thought about grad studies in physics, but decided instead to “travel around the world painting and being a beach bum. I remember asking my mother for a quickie course in painting before I left.”
It came in handy. Over the next four years, he supported himself with odd jobs, bartending, and painting portraits of tourists in such places as China, Britain, and Nepal. “It was my first inkling that I could do something artistic for a living.”
Returning to New Zealand in 1992, he enrolled again at Auckland, in a mechanical engineering graduate program. For his master’s, he built a 3-D computer model of the human eye, for a system being developed to train doctors on surgical robots. That led to a Ph.D. project in which he wrote the software to let people build biologically accurate computer models of complex human anatomy.
Then came a postdoc at MIT where, in 1996, some Hollywood types came calling, looking for smart techies to work on the technology to make virtual (computer-synthesized) actors. By this time Sagar had: 1) gotten married, to a woman named Justine he’d met during grad school; and 2) put together a computer model of the human face. He and a colleague, Paul Charette, who had built a computer vision and tracking system, combined their work into something that was basically a forerunner of a modern motion-capture system: Charette’s optical arrangement tracked dots on a person’s face, and Sagar’s software connected the dots into a computer-generated face that could be manipulated by the computer.
“We ended up making what was at that time the most realistic computer face that had been done,” Sagar recalls. It was based on Justine’s face, and what this little animation did was ask, “Am I real or am I digital?”