Alex McAdams never anticipated working in the movie industry as a college student, partly because math seemed very disconnected from movie production. Although Alex wanted a job with hands on, real world applications, he thought someone with a math degree could only become a math teacher, an actuary, or an accountant.

Things changed for Alex when he went to grad school for applied math at UCLA. He began to understand more about mathematical applications and developed a particular interest in computational physics.

Fast forward to an internship doing hair simulations for the movie Tangled, where Alex helped perfect Rapunzel’s long locks. He later earned a position at Walt Disney Animation Studios as a senior software engineer working on Frozen’s cloth and hair software simulation tools using physics to determine how the clothes and hair should move in the winter wind.

Now Alex knows that there’s a lot of math in every film that uses computer graphics, and recommends doing an internship to get your foot in the door in the industry.

According to Alex, the big challenge for simulation in computer graphics is making it look natural while making the characters more art directable. For example, the winter setting of Frozen is integral to the movie’s story, but it was a challenge for the clothes and hair to move naturally in the wind.

Alex’s background in mathematics allowed the Disney team to incorporate more accurate physics into the computer models used to simulate the whipping of Elsa’s hair and cloak in the wind and snow. The previous model used by the animators was more approximate to how cloth would move in water, which is too slow. Alex looked at the simulations and incorporated the forces like lift and drive that are in wind.

Applying a new equation to the model and then testing the animation effect made it clear that the update would make the artists’ jobs easier. Elsa’s cape fluttered as it should in wintery weather, freeing up time for work on the artistic performance of the character.

All the computations paid off. In 2014 Frozen won the Oscar for Best Animated Film, with Alex as part of the celebration.

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