Please tell us about yourself
One billion simulated particles, eight computers and three days.
That’s what it took Alexey Stomakhin to animate a single high-resolution, tube-shaped wave in the Disney film “Moana” for a scene that lasts less than a second.
Stomakhin, who graduated from UCLA in 2013 with a doctorate in mathematics, works as a senior software engineer at Walt Disney Animation Studios. He creates the tools that help animators make the Disney magic for films like “Moana” and “Zootopia,” both of which received 2017 Oscar nominations for best animated feature film.
While most of Stomakhin’s work on “Zootopia” went into making the animals’ bodies and movements appear realistic, his work on “Moana” allowed the ocean to defy the natural laws of physics and behave like a magical entity.
His desk and bookshelf stand in contrast to the rest of the museum-like Roy E. Disney Animation Building, which is filled with toys and concept art for Disney’s previous films. His corner of the office is bare aside from a few books on coding, posters explaining the software he created, pictures of him accepting awards and a lonely pair of Mickey Mouse ears. He just moved office spaces and is still in the process of decorating, he said.
Although he wasn’t always involved in the world of film and animation, math has long been a big part of Stomakhin’s life. Originally from Moscow, Stomakhin came to UCLA in 2009 after completing his undergraduate education in math and physics in Russia.
Of all the possible career paths available to STEM graduates, working at Disney probably isn’t the one that comes to mind first. For Alexey Stomakhin, it wasn’t until he saw the 2010 film Tangled that he realized the amount of mathematics required to make animated films. Having studied applied mathematics and physics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Alexey knew this was an industry he could work in.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
“After watching Tangled, I contacted a professor who specialised in physically-based animation, and who also was a scientific consultant to Walt Disney Animation Studios,” he told us. “At that time, Disney was working on a project on simulating flesh for animal characters. To develop a flesh simulation, you build a bone frame first, then you add muscles and skin to the model. Muscles and skin are bodies that are described by elasticity equations. Then they are computed to get a high-quality animation. The animation method they were employing at Disney was quite good, but it was too time-consuming, so the artists had to just sit and wait until the computing procedures were done. I was given the task of improving the situation.
“By the end of the first summer of my internship, I had managed to speed up the process by just 1.5 times, but the following year I made the operating speed 25 times faster than it was in the beginning. The flesh and muscles I was working on 5 years ago were eventually used in the movie Zootopia. Before then, the flesh project had been going on fruitlessly for several years, and no one wanted to take it on, and, honestly, no one believed that it could ever be finished.”
Having cracked how to simulate flesh on animals, Alexey was offered a full-time job, working on a snow simulation for Frozen, a project he eventually used in his doctoral dissertation. Frozen went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, the first Walt Disney Animation Studios to ever win this award (the category was created in 2001).
Why did you decide to study mathematics and physics at university?
As a kid I enjoyed studying math, but from a practical point of view, physics appealed to me much more — I always wanted to do something useful, something that could be applied to the real world. So I went to MIPT as it ranked first among the top technical universities in Russia. MIPT offers students a whole range of excellent courses to choose from, so the chances are you’ll eventually come across something that will spark your interest. When I graduated, I decided to do a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
At UCLA, Stomakhin began his graduate work with mathematics professor Andrea Bertozzi’s crime modeling lab to predict the locations of crimes. He initially aimed to become a professor. Although he enjoyed leading undergraduate discussions as a teaching assistant, Stomakhina realized he wanted a career that would allow him to apply his expertise in a more tangible way, Stomakhin said.
“The more I looked at (being a professor), the less I liked it because it’s hard to go from doing research at a university to doing something practical,” Stomakhin said.
He began working with UCLA mathematics professor Joseph Teran, who uses computers to model the behavior of physical objects, like water or virtual surgeries, and does special effects consulting work for Disney animation studio. In 2011, Stomakhin began the first of two internships at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
“He’s naturally talented at software engineering, math and physics and really fast at learning,” Teran said. “Heworks with people who aren’t experts at simulation like the artists to produce the shots they need, which is pretty important. He’s one of the best students we’ve had.”
What are the most exciting or interesting parts of your job at Disney?
Working with artists is extremely rewarding. In science, the tasks are set clearly and explicitly, but when working with artists, the first thing you need to do is to render their abstract ideas in technical terms.
For example, an artist says, “In Moana, we want the ocean in the closing scene to split before the character, and we want it to look energetic”. To get such an effect, we changed the gravity field, created a waterfall, which was actually flowing up (I must admit it looked really weird because it started right in the middle of the ground), then we modified Neumann boundary conditions for the pressure in the water to make it look like it was flowing from behind. Two months later, we achieved the final result that you can see in the movie now.
Another challenging task is to bring all special effects in line with the Disney animation style. For example, princesses in Disney movies do not look like real people, and they don’t move like them either. Rapunzel has very swift and jerky movements, so when they gave her a dress modeled according to the actual laws of physics, it would hitch up as high as her head whenever she started running. Consequently, they had to surround her with special force fields to keep the dress in place.
I can give another example: the dolphin scene in Moana. In order to comply with the Disney animation style, the dolphins were supposed to swim at 100 mph, so when they jumped into the ocean, the splashes looked like bomb explosions. We had to make the water more viscous, so in that scene the dolphins swim in a glycerin-like substance.
The program he helped design allows animators to realistically simulate the movements of muscle and fat on a character, adding a more natural feeling of weight and inertia to the animals, such as the chubby cheetah cop Clawhauser and the savage jaguar Mr. Manchas, Stomakhin said.
The software helped artists animate the jiggling of Clawhauser’s jowls and the wobbling flesh of the elephants and hippos. The artists used Stomakhin’s program to generate Manchas’ full anatomy, from skeleton to musculature to fur, in order to ensure the jaguar’s movement was as it would be in nature.
In 2013, Stomakhin began to work at Disney as a consultant before he was hired full-time. Now as a senior software engineer, Stomakhin develops new simulation software, including programs that Disney used to create snow in 2013’s “Frozen” and water effects in 2016’s “Moana.”
“We grew up watching Disney movies, they were some of our favorites,” Stomakhina said. “Now that Alexey works for Disney, he tells me all about how film production works. Watching these new Disney films has a much more personal meaning to me.”
Stomakhin sits at his computer and clicks through test simulations from both “Frozen” and “Moana,” comparing the unrefined, black-and-white raw animation to the completed, detailed footage. One of his favorite sequences is an animation of a snowball rolling down a hill and growing in size, like he used to see in Moscow.
He laughs because one of his professors didn’t believe snow behaves that way in real life. He then shows me a video of him doing research by rolling balls of snow in Northern California.
Stomakhin consults physicists to learn about the physical properties of the materials the animators trying to animate and the equations they should use. From there, Stomakhin writes the code, allowing the computer software to solve the equations.
To the side of Stomakhin’s desk is a whiteboard covered in calculations, equations and diagrams. It’s not for any of his personal projects, though – a colleague had a problem and Stomakhin lent a hand.
Though having both films nominated for best animated feature film is exciting, it’s unfortunate his projects are competing against each other, he said.
He loves the story and the message of “Zootopia,” but he found “Moana” more visually appealing. If he had to pick a favorite, Stomakhin would choose “Moana” because he was more involved in the film and spent the last two years working on water effects, like intricate foam and splashes too complicated for a person to animate.
“The whole point of what I do is to create a submersive experience – believable worlds,” Stomakhin said. “If I make special effects and nobody notices, then it means I did a good job. It’s not distracting, but it helps you become submersed in the new reality.”
What would other people be surprised to learn about working on big Disney blockbuster films?
Many people don’t realise how much work it takes to create an animated movie. If the audience watches a scene and doesn’t notice the technical side of it, it means we have done our job well. The more realistic it looks, the more work lies behind it. The audience takes it for granted, but in reality each tiny detail demands the joint efforts of 700 people. One animated movie takes about five years to produce.
What’s it like to work on a big blockbuster movie? What’s a typical working day like?
When the first draft of the movie script is ready, we talk to the special effects supervisor to get a general idea of what needs to be done animation-wise. Then we start the research process: we look through scientific papers that have been published on the topic so far and also try to come up with something on our own. Then we move on to iteration – that’s when we work closely with the artists, try different designs and eventually get a clearer understanding of the task.
The next stage is about active development: we integrate our simulations into a production pipeline. To give an example, let’s say we have developed a method for a water simulation. We cooperate with a department that is responsible for character animation, because they need to know how water will be flowing in the movie so that they can make the characters move correctly in a boat. A department in charge of lighting needs to know how to lay the light over the water to make it look realistic. We work as a huge group, gather to discuss all these details, and test our simulations.
Now I am working on a hair simulation. I have some ideas of a very cool hair model for the characters. The project is going through the research stage – I am looking for a suitable equation that could describe hair and make it look more consistent on screen. Disney princesses have many hair styles: straight, curly, round and elliptical in cut, and each of them responds differently to deformations. I know so much about it now that I could probably easily become a hairstylist!
How has your job affected the way you enjoy other movies?
I always pay attention to special effects and technical details when I watch movies, because I am curious to know what algorithms they used to create the simulations. But it doesn’t get me too distracted from enjoying a storyline.
How did it feel to work on a film that won the Oscar for Best Animated Film?
When the directors brought the Oscars (they were given four different Oscar statuettes in total) to the studio, it was amazing. We had a chance to hold it and take some pictures with it.
But for me, the most important thing was the fact that Frozen won the award at all, because Disney movies hadn’t won for a long time at that point. All of us were watching the ceremony on a big screen and when they announced that Frozen was the winner, we jumped to our feet and started clapping. No one had expected it would happen.
Given so many people are responsible for making a film successful, how connected to the award do you feel?
There are 700 employees working in the studio, so I suppose you could say my contribution to the film was only 1/700, but we had a huge amount of work to do.
What do friends and family say when you tell them about your work on such a successful film?
When I say I work at Disney, the most common response is, “Do you mean you work in Disneyland?” I have to explain that actually those are two different things. People get curious and start to ask me lots of questions about my job. My sister has always been an avid Disney fan, so she was head over heels when she found out I’d become a Disney staff member. On her first visit to Los Angeles, I took her to Disney Studios as soon as she arrived. She was really excited to see it.
What are you working on now? Any Disney secrets you can share?
We are working on a movie where there’ll be a lot of hair. That’s why I am modeling hair simulations at the moment. They will also be used in all movies that Disney will release in the future. It is hardly a secret, because practically all characters have hair!
What advice would you give to current students who want to work in the same job?
They should be really good at math, physics and computer programming. Unlike artists, we do not fall into a certain category. Artists have art schools where they learn to paint, build up a portfolio of their work, and then get a job. But there isn’t a place that would teach you to work in the Disney Department of Technology. We take interns with a scientific education from all over the world, with different skills and abilities for particular projects. That’s why my advice is to acquire skills in a specific field that you really love.