|Alumnus Virtually Illuminates the Magical Kingdom|
|At the intersection of art and technology, where mathematical computer modeling meets lighting design in the animated movie industry, you’ll find Chris Springfield ’91. The artist/engineer just wrapped up three and a half years of work on the recently released computer-animated Disney movie, Bolt. Springfield supervised the lighting on a number of scenes, overseeing, as he describes it, the mathematical modeling that set up the computer-generated lighting, enabling artists to manipulate which objects get lighted and how.
“It fits in with the animation heritage of Disney,” he says, when artists painted backgrounds with painstaking detail. “We’re the next generation of background design,” in which lighting is adjusted, virtually, to achieve the desired artistic look.
Much has been made in the press of Bolt’s “painterly sensibility.” The set design intentionally evokes the paintings of Edward Hopper and the lighting of famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; Springfield, as “sequence lead,” was part of a team of more than 300 artists and software engineers who made the aesthetic possible.
Bolt is the latest in a string of films on which Springfield has worked in an 11-year career with Walt Disney Animated Features, starting as a software engineer and increasingly specializing in the lighting aspect of virtual set design. His movie credits include Chicken Little, Home on the Range, Treasure Planet and Tarzan. Along the way, he picked up a 2003 Academy Award for technical achievement in virtual illumination.
What seems an unlikely marriage of disparate fields comes naturally to Springfield, the son of an artist and a geologist who together formed a successful map-making business. He loved acting in grade-school plays; by high school he was making short films. At Mines and while pursuing his doctorate in applied physics at the California Institute of Technology, he was involved in all aspects of student theater. “It’s funny telling people I was involved in theater at two different engineering schools,” he says.
With a friend at Cal Tech, Springfield co-wrote, directed and produced the feature-length film Green Eggs and Hamlet, a Shakespeare-cum-Dr. Seuss production. “We shot the whole movie with a digital camera,” he says, “which was kind of cutting edge at the time.”
The movie, and his connections in both the physics and theater departments, led him to put his PhD on hold so he could work on computer graphics in the movie Dante’s Peak.
Completing his degree at Cal Tech gave Springfield a renewed appreciation of his experience at Mines. “A lot of the (Mines) team-building curriculum has translated directly into my work, both in graduate school and in my profession.”
In the world of computer-generated virtual lighting, look for the spotlight to continue to shine on Chris Springfield.
Bolts from the Blue: A Journey from Engineer to Playwright
The moment of inspiration came one drab day on the 26th floor of a Holiday Inn in Wichita, KS. An Amoco research engineer at the time, Roger Rueff ’78, MS ’83, PhD ’85 had been ruminating on an idea for a play for several months. “I found myself in a hospitality suite with a salesman and an account manager, and it struck me as the perfect setting for the play,” said Roger.
The highly successful script he went on to write is titled Hospitality Suite and tells the story of three men working for an industrial-lubricant firm, who are at philosophical loggerheads with each other. Since it premiered at the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, CA, in 1992, the play has been produced around the world and made into a feature film, The Big Kahuna (2000), which stars Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito.
The journey from selling lubricants in Wichita, KS, to rubbing shoulders with Kevin Spacey was exciting and transformative for Roger. And a bit ironically, one of the people most instrumental in helping him on his way was a fellow Miner, Mark Furlong MS ’79, PhD ’81, whom he first met at an audition for the role of E-Days Talent Show emcee in 1978.
Although their paths crossed on several occasions on campus, they didn’t actually become friends until 1985, when Mark recruited Roger to work with him at the Amoco Research Center on the outskirts of Chicago. Some months later, after learning that Mark was involved in community theater, Roger asked if he could tag along to an audition. They both came away with roles, and although he probably didn’t know it at the time, Roger also came away with a whole new direction for his writing life.
“Up to that point, I only wrote short stories and poetry,” said Roger. “It wasn’t until I got involved in community theater that I said to myself, ‘I like plays. I should try to write one.’” From there, one thing led to another. “I started writing plays, got to know a director, who I didn’t realize at the time knew Kevin Spacey, who ended up getting a reading of the play in New York, which got the script to the William Morris Agency, which sent the script out to the South Coast Repertory Theatre, where it premiered,” Roger recounts. And he chalks his lucky break up to the Mines connection. “Really, it’s because of another Mines guy, Mark, that I’ve got a movie and have had plays produced around the world!”
While Roger’s career is hardly typical for a Mines graduate, he says there’s a creative continuity between his two careers. Playwriting and engineering both involve the occasional “aha moment,” he says, and a fair amount of problem solving. “If something doesn’t work, you have to find out why. In creative writing, that means finding the spine of the story.”
One of his finest moments as an Amoco research engineer was a burst of insight he had concerning paraffin wax production—his first assignment. “The way they made paraffin wax used a process from 1895. For years, it had been a black art. You could never tell what kind of wax you would get, or how much.” Two graphs had long been used to analyze the process, and neither revealed anything fundamental.
He was relaxing with his feet up on the desk when inspiration hit. “I said ‘Oh, my God! There’s a third graph that generates the other two, and you can use it to make important changes in the process,’” said Roger. “I realized that the two graphs were like two adjacent sides of a cube—and no one had ever looked at the third side adjacent to them both. In the end, the process changes increased wax output 30 to 50 percent with no capital investment and allowed them to predict the product composition for the first time in almost 100 years.”
Engineering and creative writing have a lot in common, Roger believes, including those bolts from the blue. Roger now writes full time and runs his own company, Write Now, Inc., where his engineering background supports the many technical projects he takes on for commercial clients.
“That’s my bread and butter,” he says. And when he’s not chasing one of his client’s deadlines, he continues to write for theater. An L.A. Drama Critic’ Circle double-award-winning play of his, So Many Words, just finished a four-week run at Seattle’s Theater Schmeater in December.