Local accounting firm, WPG Professional Corporation, welcomed a special guest to their office last Thursday. Derek Bradley, from Smith Falls, was honoured with an Academy Award in February for the developing performance capture technology used in various Disney franchises, including the Marvel and Star Wars movies. He was at WPG to visit his father, who works there, and firm owner and family friend Alan Gutman.
Derek did his undergraduate and Masters degree in computer science at Carleton University. Originally, he thought he would go into software engineering, but, during his Masters, he started studying computer graphics and fell in love with it. “I loved the visual feedback that you get,” he says.
During his Masters, he started studying something called augmented reality, where you insert virtual items into photos and video in real time. After his second degree, he decided to go further and do his PhD at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Part of his doctoral research was studying technology that did the reverse of augmented reality, putting real life objects into the digital world.
When a representative from Disney came to visit UBC during his doctoral studies, he was impressed by Derek’s work and offered to fly him out to the Disney Research facility in Zurich to check it out. Derek secured a job there and has now been working for Disney Research for just over eight years.
The technology that earned him the Academy Award was developed by a team of four people at the Disney Research lab over a number of years. The technology, called Medusa Performance capture, can reconstruct the shape and motion of an actor’s face without the need for markers, special make up, or special lighting.
Not only is the technology portable and simple to use, it also achieved a quality of performance capture that had never been achieved before. “It hit a new bar for quality,” Derek says. “That’s what made it stand out.”
The technology has been used in roughly 20 movies since 2014. The first movie that used it was Disney’s Maleficent, for the three flower pixie characters. Other movies include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Jungle Book, Doctor Strange, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Derek’s name is also in the credits of the highly anticipated final movie of the Avengers franchise, Avengers: Endgame, which came out last weekend. An example of the technology in use is the large purple villain in the movie, Thanos, played by Josh Brolin.
Derek says the Academy Awards for science and technology are set up a little differently than the ones seen on TV. There was still an awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, but he and his colleagues were told they had won in December 2018. Derek says that the press was told before the academy called the winners, so he found out from a friend at around midnight. The first thing he did was call his parents in Smiths Falls. “I didn’t get much sleep that night,” he remembers. “We celebrated at the office the next day”.
Although they didn’t get the traditional Oscar statuette, Derek and his colleagues did get certificates, which he still thinks is pretty cool. It is still sitting on his desk, reminding him of his achievement. He says he is lucky to work at a place where his research translates to something concrete. “It’s nice working at Disney, because my research makes a difference you can actually see”.
Derek says that innovation is always happening at Disney Research lab, and there is definitely more cool stuff to come. “It’s not the end of the story,” he says.