Nfld. & Labrador

Newfoundland's first Oscar winner recognized for technical achievements

Robert Bridson will be receiving a technical Oscar for his work on a number of Hollywood blockbusters, including Gravity and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Bridson, now working in B.C., is the first Newfoundlander to ever win an Oscar.
The nominations for this year's Academy Awards were announced earlier this week, but the awards for technical achievements were already declared, and Robert Bridson is the first person from N.L. to win an Oscar. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP file photo)

The first person from Newfoundland and Labrador to ever win an Oscar isn't an actor, a director or a writer.

Robert Bridson is a mathematician.

That said, Bridson is the man behind some of the magical scenes that wowed audiences in hit films like Peter Jackson's The Hobbit and the Oscar-winning sci-fi thriller Gravity.

Movie lovers everywhere are talking about this week's Oscar nomination announcement, but awards have already been announced for some of the people involved behind the scenes.

Earlier this week, the technical Oscar winners were announced. Among them is Bridson, who lives and works in Vancouver, for his technical work for some major Hollywood hits.
Robert Bridson is the first Newfoundlander to ever win an Oscar. Bridson, who now lives in B.C., has worked on films like Gravity and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. (Submitted by Robert Bridson)

Bridson won his technical achievement award for "early conceptualization of sparse-tiled voxel data structures and their application to modelling and simulation."

So, exactly what does that mean?

"Basically figuring out the math to make computers solve the kinds of equations we're interested in for simulating the real world," said Bridson.

Bridson said his work involves taking mathematical equations that are known in nature, and applying those to values — like how fire would behave in a zero-gravity atmosphere — to a piece of software that enables digital artists to create images.

Making ideas a digital possibility

For Gravity, Bridson said he wasn't sure himself what the scene he did work on would actually look like; he handed his software over to artists who digitized fire on board the space station that Sandra Bullock's character then has to extinguish.
Robert Bridson says one of his most challenging jobs was for The Adventures of Tintin, in a scene where an hallucination puts a pirate ship in the middle of the desert. (DreamWorks)

"Their job in some ways is very difficult because I guess they're trying to please the director, who has a vision in their heads … and occasionally there's interesting conflicts, and people who don't like what physics is saying and want it to be different, and of course the artist wins," said Bridson.

"So most of my job has been partly even not necessarily responding to requests, but trying to think of, well, it would be pretty useful I would imagine if artists had this tool, and then they would find out new and creative ways to use it."

On The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the artists wanted to digitally create the scene where the Thorin Oakenshield and his party of dwarves — and, of course, a hobbit — headed down a river in barrels.

Bridson's job was to create software that would enable the digital artists to create a realistic portrayal of how that river would behave if it was in the real world.

"I'll figure out things like Newton's Third Law and ideas about the pressure and water and how it interacts with the riverbanks and everything. From there, I figure out the math and program that up … and it can get pretty heavy on the mathematical details."

Upside to no TV cast

According to Bridson, one of the more challenging — and interesting — scenes he was involved in was in The Adventures of Tintin. In the film, there's a scene in the desert where the sand dunes are moving and turn into stormy waves and a pirate battle ensues.
Robert Bridson provided the software that enabled digital artists to create this barrel-riding scene in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. (New Line Cinema)

"How do you turn a desert into stormy water that looks kind of like it's real water, but it's at the same time being sort of meticulously crafted to be just what framed the shot properly, and that really sort of goes beyond what mother nature intended so there's a fair bit of creativity involved," he said.

The process for technical Oscars is different; contenders have to apply for the recognition and there's a vetting process where they are interviewed about how their software works, how they came up with it, and how it was actually used.

However, Bridson said there's a big plus for him: it's not televised.

"The good side of that is there's no nomination process where you end up waiting to hear whether you're a winner or a loser, with people taking photos of you as you process your disappointment."

The actual award will be presented to Bridson on Feb. 22 in Hollywood, California.