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Stanford engineering professor wins third technical Oscar

Computer scientist Pat Hanrahan shares this latest honor with two of his former students who now work for Google; the trio created tools for making computer-generated films such as “Avatar” and “Monsters University” more realistic.
Professor Pat Hanrahan will receive his third Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. | Photo by Linda Cicero

Stanford Engineering Professor Pat Hanrahan will receive his third technical Oscar award for work that allows Hollywood to more easily and accurately reproduce real-world lighting in computer-generated films like “Avatar” and “Monsters University.”

Hanrahan, the Canon Professor in the School of Engineering, and his former PhD students Matt Pharr and Greg Humphreys, are being honored for what is known as physically based rendering, a process that “transformed computer graphics lighting” by more accurately simulating materials and lights in movies, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said in a news release yesterday.

Pharr (PhD 2005), Humphreys (PhD 2002) and Hanrahan, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering, wrote software for this type of rendering. They then collaborated on a book that not only lays out the theory behind their work but also provides source code and instructions for how to actually implement it. The book, Physically Based Rendering, was developed in support of Stanford’s CS348B course in Image Processing and is based in part on Hanrahan’s lectures for the course.

The book and software “allow digital artists to focus on cinematograph rather than the intricacies of rendering,” the Academy said.

The trio are among 52 to be honored by the Academy on February 15 at the Beverly Hills Hotel in southern California.  Pharr and Humphreys both now work at Google.

Hanrahan’s earlier Oscars also related to his work in rendering.  He received his first Oscar in 1993 for his work on the team developing Pixar’s pioneering RenderMan software, which is still used in the computer graphics industry. On 2004 he was part of a team that received an Oscar for research that made it possible for filmmakers to accurately depict skin and other translucent materials.