Industrial Light & Magic Engineer Wins a Technical Oscar

Jim Vanns’s software was used in the film Gravity

5 min read
Photo of a man in a tuxedo standing at the Oscars.

Jim Vanns was one of 19 people who received a Technical Achievement award this year for their contributions to the film industry over the last decade.

MAGZ CHIDOTHE

Winning an Academy Award is probably not something most engineers ever expect to do. But it was a fitting honor for Jim Vanns, who won a 2023 Technical Achievement Award—commonly referred to as a Technical Oscar—from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work on the high-performance computing systems behind the blockbuster films Gravity (2013) andGuardians of the Galaxy (2014). He shared the award with Mark Hills, a former colleague at the London-based visual-effects studio Framestore. The pair wrote the software to manage the cutting-edge computing cluster that Framestore used to create its computer-generated imagery, or CGI. Their software is still being used today.

Jim Vanns

Employer:

Industrial Light & Magic, London

Title:

Principal production engineer

Education:

Joint honors degree in computer science and music, Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, England

“The great thing about the Academy Awards is that they raise awareness of the technology being used, which would be impossible to make films without,” Vanns says. “These awards show that the dependence on technology is understood and appreciated, rather than just assuming making movies is all about the creative teams.”

Vanns, who now works at Disney-owned Industrial Light & Magic, in London, was an avid cinephile growing up. But he didn’t realize until after college that his coding skills would be his entry into the film industry.

“I have always loved movies,” he says, “but I never really thought there would be a chance to apply my computer science knowledge to making them.” And with the growing importance of visual effects (VFX) in moviemaking, he says, there are increasing opportunities for the more technically minded to make their mark on the silver screen.

2023 Sci-Tech Awards: Mark Hills and Jim Vanns | FQ Render Farm Management Systemwww.youtube.com

Inspired by the Lord of the Rings

Vanns grew up in Tonbridge, England, and played guitar for several bands as a teenager. He began tinkering with the software used to produce music. The programs often crashed unexpectedly, so he dug into the underlying code to find out why. That was his first taste of computer science. “I got into reverse engineering and understanding how computers worked under the hood,” he says.

Meanwhile, his father was gently nudging him to study something with a more “realistic” career path than music. Vanns decided to combine his interests, majoring in computer science and music at Canterbury Christ Church University, in Canterbury, England.

After graduating with a joint honors degree in both fields in 2001, Vanns worked for a time writing software, and seemed to be setting off on a fairly conventional IT career. But his love of cinema set him on a different path. While watching the bonus content on the DVD version ofThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), he was captivated by a discussion about the CGI in an iconic battle scene. The scene’s large numbers of computer-generated characters were created on a dedicated cluster of high-performance computers—a render farm—that converted the data from a 3D computer model into a photo-realistic video.

Vanns had assumed that the only computer science jobs in the film industry were related to creating the graphics themselves, something he hadn’t studied. But that DVD discussion opened his eyes to the extensive software development and systems management that went into producing CGI. Eager to break into the industry, he began applying for jobs, and in 2006 he was hired as a systems programmer at Framestore.

“It was that ‘foot in the door’ opportunity that I was after,” he says. “I think a lot of people end up falling into my line of work, but for me it was very much a conscious decision to try to get into the industry.”

Award-winning rendering software

After a few years of learning the ropes and working on a variety of projects, Vanns was assigned to revamp the management software for Framestore’s render farm. The company had just been hired for the VFX-heavy Gravity and needed to switch to a far more computationally taxing form of rendering called path tracing. The approach simulates the physics of light more faithfully than other approaches do, leading to scenes with more realistic and dynamic lighting.

The project was going to stretch Framestore’s render farm nearly to its breaking point, Vanns recalls, so it needed software that could squeeze every drop of efficiency out of the hardware. But the company also wanted to future-proof its systems. Vanns and Hills had to create software that would last a decade and could handle 10 times the workload required for Gravity as the company’s render farm grew.

At its heart, the challenge they faced was one of resource management, Vanns says. “We had this render farm made up of 100,000 processor cores, but the company was often working on three different shows at the same time,” he says. “It was all about how we divvied up the cores.”

The goal was to ensure that the processors were used as efficiently as possible, and that different tasks running on the same machines didn’t end up competing for resources, like memory. That required some clever scheduling and networking. The team was also given the job of creating a responsive user interface that could provide real-time updates on the progress of rendering jobs.

The resulting system, dubbed the FQ renderfarm engine, is what earned Vanns and Hills their Academy Award. The software went live in 2010 and is still in use at Framestore today. “They have had to do very few code changes,” Vanns says. “The system still runs just as it was designed.”

“The great thing about the Academy Awards is that they raise awareness of the technology being used, which would be impossible to make films without.”

After completing the FQ project, Vanns wanted a new challenge. He joined the London office of Industrial Light & Magic in 2014 as a senior production engineer. The first project he worked on involved researching whether the company could shift the bulk of its computing workload onto the cloud. That meant imagining how to build the company’s entire global VFX infrastructure from scratch using the latest cloud technology.

“It was real ‘the world is your oyster,’ blue-sky-thinking kind of stuff,” he says.

The project was fascinating, Vanns says, but the company concluded that a wholesale shift to the cloud didn’t make sense. It would be difficult to migrate the legacy software, and the investments the company had already made in hardware meant it was unlikely to save much money. However, insights gained from the project led to improvements to the company’s IT infrastructure. Vanns is currently developing a new data-storage system that resulted from the project.

How to break into the movie-tech business

When it comes to a software-development career in the VFX industry, graphics-related work gets most of the attention. But Vanns says there are plenty of other interesting roles available.

“I don’t think it’s really well understood how much work is involved in terms of building databases, operating systems, networks, and all that slightly less grand software,” he says.

The requirements for the movie industry are similar to those for software engineering jobs in other sectors, Vanns says. An understanding of algorithms and data structures is a must. The industry relies heavily on the Linux operating system, so relevant experience is also required.

Those who want to write software to support the creation of CGI will need to learn how the process works, Vanns says. It involves coordination among the various departments specializing in different aspects of VFX, including textures, animation, and lighting, which all have different requirements and workflows.

Most important, though, is the ability to find creative solutions to problems. Complications are inevitable when managing computer systems made up of thousands of devices and used by thousands of people, who are often scattered around the globe.

“I think an underestimated aspect problem solving is creativity,” Vanns says. “Being able to think not only analytically but also creatively about how you might solve a problem is a must.”

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