Ben Morris

Doctor of Engineering Ben Morris

Friday 15 July 2011 - Orator: Professor Stuart Burgess

Mr Deputy Vice Chancellor,

In 1977, at the age of seven, today’s honorary graduand Ben Morris went to see the original Stars Wars film at his local cinema in Oxford. Amazed by the wonderfully animated robots and spaceships, this small boy came away from the cinema convinced that he should make his career in film and animation. Today, Ben Morris is one of the film industry’s leading visual effects engineers.

At the age of eight, Ben was a given a single lens reflex camera by his father. He showed considerable resourcefulness in the way that he managed to convert the family bathroom into a film processing centre. At this early stage he began to learn not just the art of photography but also the usefulness of technology in creating works of art. The first clear sign of Ben’s artistic ability came at the age of 15 when he won first prize in the National Kodak Portrait Competition.

As well as tackling the fundamentals of photography, Ben spent his time learning the art of film making. At the age of 11, he set his sights on a Eumig Super 8 film camera. But the camera was not cheap. Raising the capital involved saving all his pocket money for six months and also making an application to the bank of mum and dad. Getting the Eumig camera was a significant turning point for Ben, as he discovered how much fun was involved in creating moving films.

Ben would make short animated films using articulated puppet skeletons that he had lovingly made in the garden shed. These films were painstakingly created by filming single frames at a time and moving the puppets through small distances between each frame. The process was so laborious that it took several days to make a film of just a few minutes in length. Sending off the 3-minute Kodachrome film cartridge to be processed led to an almost unbearable wait to see the results.

These animations were often re-creations of Ben’s favourite films such as Indiana Jones, The Empire Strikes Back and Blade Runner. One of Ben’s most exciting experiments involved models being blown to pieces using fireworks and electric rocket igniters. These activities proved to be an excellent training ground for developing innovative techniques. They were also very useful for learning about the importance of health and safety!

At the age of 16, Ben had the vision to see that qualifications in art and engineering would be ideal for a career in film making. He also had the courage to attempt to get qualified in these two different areas of study. For his A-levels Ben chose Art, Maths and Physics. Following his A-levels, he then took a foundation course in Art and Design at a college in Banbury for which he was awarded a Distinction. Having obtained the qualification in Art, he then studied for a mechanical engineering degree at Bristol University.

Coming to Bristol to study Mechanical Engineering was an inspired choice and not just because Bristol is, naturally, the best place to study engineering! It was inspired because the best artists are those who have a deep understanding of the physics of the real world. Leonardo da Vinci is the classic example of an artist whose success stemmed largely from his scientific and engineering knowledge.

When Ben was interviewed for a place at Bristol, he explained that his ambition was to gain engineering skills that could be used in the film industry. In 1992 Ben graduated with first class honours in Mechanical Engineering. His final year project was entitled: Adaptive Control of Large Scale Animatronic Puppets. The project was supervised by Professor David Stoten.

After graduating in 1992 Ben immediately got a position in Jim Henson's Creature Shop. He quickly progressed to Technical Supervisor in charge of development of the Henson Performance Control System. He also worked on the Oscar award-winning film Babe.

In 1996 Ben moved to the Neal Scanlan Studio to work on Babe 2 in Sydney, Australia. There Ben was part of a development team that built fully articulated and controllable puppets of pigs, sheep, ducks, cats, monkeys, mice and pelicans.

While Ben was working on Babe 2, there was increasing use of computer generated animations in the film industry. These computer animations were a growing competitor to physical puppets. Ben knew he had a choice to make. He could either hang on to the declining market for puppets or he could take on the huge task of retraining in the art of computer animations. Most people would find it difficult to contemplate such a drastic change in career. However, as we saw in his childhood, Ben was prepared to learn and embrace the cutting edge of technology.

In 1997 Ben went to see Jurassic Park: The Lost World, one of the first pioneering films to use computer generated scenes. This film proved conclusively to Ben that the future of believable character animation and performance would be created in a computer, rather than practically using real-world puppets.

So Ben took the brave decision to re-train over a period of 6 months as a computer generated artist, using his experience of building robotic puppets and control systems to help him better understand how to design and build 'virtual' characters in the computer.

At every stage of his career Ben has returned to his engineering background to help model dynamic real-world motion, control complex robotic cameras and mechanical rigs and derive algorithms to simulate lighting, shading and rendering in CG images.

In 1997 Ben, as part of the company MillFilm, worked on the epic ‘Gladiator’, supervising all motion capture crowd animation and many shots involving the Coliseum. The film went on to win five Academy Awards, including for Best Visual Effects.

In 2000 Ben moved to the Framestore, the largest visual effects and computer animation studio in Europe, to work on Dinotopia. During this time he established in-house motion control and motion-base systems to allow real actors to ride on the back of computer generated characters. Almost exactly ten years after graduating, Ben’s work on Dinotopia was recognised when he was awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, as well as a Visual Effects Society Award.

Over the next few years, Ben built up an impressive film portfolio, including Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Troy, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, Prince of Persia, The War Horse directed by Steven Spielberg – and Gravity. In 2006 his work on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was nominated for the award of the Visual Effects Society’s Best Single Visual Effect of the Year – specifically for The Nut Room Squirrels.

One of Ben’s biggest projects was working on the film version of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Between 2005 and 2007 Ben worked as the Visual Effects Supervisor on this project, with responsibility for creating all the computer generated armoured bears and polar environments they lived in. Challenges included designing and building camera and motion base systems to allow filming of the young actress riding on the back of Lorek, the 'hero' polar bear. In addition, he had to develop hair systems to cover the bears with between 1-5 millions hairs, depending on their distance from the camera. Ben supervised over 300 shots (many entirely computer generated), including co-star bear performances, The Bear Fight, shots of Lyra riding Lorek and extensive digital environments in the North Pole. This success secured Ben with a Bafta Award for Best Visual Effects, in 2008, and, later that year, in front of the world’s media, he collected an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, working in the film industry is not for the faint-hearted. A normal week might involve 50+ hours of work. But when deadlines are looming this can increase to over 100 hours. Despite the hard work, there can be great rewards and satisfaction in the film industry. Ben has shown that dedication and hard work do eventually pay dividends.

Mr Deputy Vice-chancellor, I present to you Ben Matthew Morris as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Engineering, honoris causa.

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