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Movie magic: Jack Greasley (BSc 1998)

Jack was part of the team who developed the MARI 3D texture painting system for the 2009 film Avatar The Foundry

23 March 2016

Computer Science graduate Jack Greasley (BSc 1998) won a Scientific and Engineering Award at the 2016 Oscars for his contribution to visual effects. His software, Mari, was developed for box-office record-breaker Avatar, and has since been widely adopted across the film industry. We talked to Jack about science, cinema, and how he found success.

Why did you choose to study Computer Science at Bristol?

I was always a big computer nerd growing up. I studied Computer Science at A-Level and really wanted to continue with that study at university. I knew Bristol from its reputation as a great university, so I put it down on my ‘list’. It eventually came down to the open day. When I visited the University, I was incredibly impressed with the Department of Computer Science. People were enthusiastic, and it just seemed like somewhere that took Computer Science and Engineering seriously.

I also fell in love with the city. It was big enough to be interesting but small enough to be personal. What I ended up appreciating most about Bristol was the opportunity I had to try things that interested me – I was given a framework and a structure within which I was supported to go and try some crazy ideas!

So, what did you do when you graduated, and how has your career progressed since then?

I’d always wanted to work in computer graphics for film; it was a dream from when I was little. Unfortunately, when I graduated, there wasn’t really much of a UK film industry. There were probably only ten jobs in the UK that fit what I wanted to do, so naturally the chances of me getting one of them fresh out of usniversity were pretty slim. I went and worked in computer games for a while, then from there moved into TV graphics.

My luck changed when Harry Potter came along. J K Rowling insisted that a lot of the work for the films was done in the UK, which really bootstrapped the UK film industry. Off the back of that, I was able to get a job working on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for a company called Framestore. It was actually only a three-month contract, but 14 years later I’m still in the industry, so it turned out to be an awesome break.

It’s certainly not every day that you get to work on Harry Potter…

Very true. I worked on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and then I was lucky enough to be invited to work in New Zealand, at Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s visual effects company. They’d finished the Lord of the Rings series a few years before and had just finished working on King Kong.

I arrived for the first week of pre-production for Avatar, and I didn’t leave until just after it won its Oscars. During that time, around four and a half years, I was working in close quarters with about 80 texture artists. The texture artists are the people who paint the detail onto the surface of the characters you see on screen, and I was part of the team who wrote the Mari software specifically for the kinds of tools they needed.

What was it like to work in that environment?

Avatar was a huge amount of hard work, but I was lucky to be at a company that was incredibly focused. There were probably about 1,300 people of us working towards a common goal, and that kind of energy and direction is contagious. The first time we saw some finished shots in the review cinema, we were all amazed and surprised at what we’d managed to create. I remember thinking: ‘How did we do that?!’

What is it about the industry that particularly interests or motivates you?

It’s constantly evolving. A lot of industries say that they’re always raising the bar, but with film, there’s a very tangible visual record of how things have improved. You can see on screen that with each new generation of films – every 18 months or so – things are getting bigger and better, and the artists behind the films are able to do more.

I also love seeing how people I’ve never even met are using the software we’ve written to make really cool visual graphics. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

It must be really great to see how wide the impact of what you’ve done has been.

In that respect, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I think that pretty much every big Hollywood movie made in the last three to five years that features monsters, dinosaurs, explosions or spaceships has used our software. It’s nice to know that we did something that has changed how movies are made.

How did you react when you found out you’d won an Oscar, and what was the ceremony like?

I was at a trade show in Las Vegas and I got a text message from a friend of mine in the industry. It just said ‘Congrats on the Oscar!’, and that was the first I’d heard of it! We’d put in an application but heard nothing. I asked him if he knew something I didn’t, and then he sent me a link to the press release from the Academy. I would like to say that I kept my cool, but no – I was jumping up and down with excitement.

It was a nice time to be recognised: it was almost ten years to the day since we first started writing Mari. We accepted the award at a ceremony in Los Angeles in February, and that was really fun. I had to get up and give an Oscar acceptance speech, which is something I never thought I’d do. I was speaking on behalf of a whole bunch of people, so I had to be the very sensible grown–up, but inside I was bursting with excitement. Luckily, our award was early on, which meant I could then run off stage and enjoy the rest of the evening.

So, what’s next for you?

I’ve got a few projects in the works at the moment. I’ve just been working on a project with Mercedes Benz, to apply some of the technology that we’ve written for movies to car dashboards. It’s an interesting crossover between what we traditionally do and technology with mass-market appeal.

I’m also looking at ways to take the lessons that film and visual effects have learnt over the last 30 years and apply them to other industries. There are a lot of things that film does really well – mostly to do with handling large amounts of very complicated data – that other industries are just starting to get to grips with. We’re trying to work out how we can help them with that.

What would you say to any current students who want to get into your line of work?

If you want to get into the technology side of visual effects, in some ways it’s never been easier. The information is out there (Google wasn’t around when I was trying to get into the industry in 1998) and there are set ways of getting into the industry now. Conversely, it’s also never been more difficult because the level of competition is much higher now that it’s clear how to do it.

It’s not enough just to know a bit by the time you come out of University, because you’re going to be going up against people who know much more and have already been involved in conversations with the industry for two or three years. You’ve got to really put yourself out there and work on establishing a bit of a reputation. Oh, and you need to have a solid grounding in Computer Science!

Further information

You can find out more about Jack and the Mari software by visiting his company's website, The Foundry