Rapunzel’s Physicist

“This filmmaking dream is nice, but you really need to get yourself a practical degree first,” Dr. Chris Springfield’s father told him when he announced he was going to work in animation after seeing “Star Wars.” Springfield followed his father’s advice and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering Physics from CSM and a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from California Institute of Technology. He is also a Walt Disney Animation Studios Lighting Supervisor and an Academy Award Winner.

“I wandered the campus and realized this felt like home…Where I really wanted to be was right there in Meyer Hall. When I walked into that building, I knew I wanted to be a physics major. I didn’t have any doubt in my mind,” Springfield said of his decision to go to Mines. As a physics major, Springfield learned critical thinking, problem solving, experimentation, and collaboration. Specifically, Springfield emphasized the value of personal relationship.

While at Mines, Springfield became involved in Mines Little Theater because a girl told him it was a good way to meet girls. He directed “Arsenic and Old Lace” and learned “how to lead a group of people that had absolutely nothing keeping them there except for their love of theater.”

In his senior year, Springfield applied to the California Institute of Technology on a whim. He thought, “Gee I’m not going to get in here anyway, so I’ll just write an essay about what I want to do.” He wrote an essay on his interest “in making three dimensional holographic movies.” Originally, he planned to earn a Master’s degree at USC, but he was unexpectedly accepted by Caltech’s Applied Physics department.

After some deliberation, Springfield chose to attend and studied under Tom McGill, creating an animation lab for the Solid State Devices Group because none of the professors worked on exactly what he wanted to do, “Movies, that’s MIT” the professors told him.

During his time at Caltech, Springfield participated extensively in community theatre, including directing “Inherit the Wind.” He and a friend also wrote and made a full-length film called “Green Eggs and Hamlet.” “Green Eggs and Hamlet” rewrote the entirety of “Hamlet” in Dr. Seuss rhyme. Following “Green Eggs and Hamlet,” Springfield attended a major computer graphics conference and spoke with Disney. He was still working on his Ph.D. at the time, though, and was unable to take a job.

Near the end of his Ph.D., Springfield interviewed with a company called Digital Domain. He was unexpectedly hired to help animate lava for the film “Dante’s Peak.” Springfield described his geologist father’s reaction: “My dad was incredibly proud and incredibly disappointed at the same time.”

Springfield received the script of “Titanic” and immediately insisted on participating in the film. He told the casting director, “I have to work on this film….because this is an Oscar winner…This is gonna win it all and I want my name on it.” Though Springfield wanted to work on water or other CGI stuff, the only positions available were in camera tracking. His job entailed making sure the CGI elements such as the iceberg moved in a manner consistent with the live-action camera work.

After “Titanic,” Springfield returned to Caltech, finished his Ph.D., and was laid off from Digital Domain. One of his former coworkers called him and offered him a job at a new computer group at Disney. Their first project was taking a program known as Deep Canvas, developed for “Tarzan” and generalizing it for other films. “Deep Canvas,” Springfield said, “is a process in which we were able to put brushstrokes on three-dimensional objects and make them feel like a Disney background painting. The technology was revolutionary.” The Academy agreed, as Springfield and the rest of his team were ultimately awarded an Oscar for their contributions.

Disney wanted Deep Canvas to be able to be used on other, very different films, such as the “Treasure Planet,” which was a very different film, “Treasure Island,” set in space. Springfield spoke fondly of the film, saying, “It’s the most beautiful film I’ve ever worked on…The problem was it wasn’t a great story, and let’s be honest, tall ships in space with characters who weren’t wearing helmets? The public just didn’t buy it.”

After “Treasure Planet,” Springfield worked on “Chicken Little” and “Bolt,” gradually increasing his participation in the artistic side of filmmaking until he was ultimately promoted to lighting supervisor. Springfield explained that a lighting supervisor “takes the animation, camera crews, all the elements of the scene and puts them all together. We have to take it from that raw stage, add lights, atmosphere, integrate all those effects to overall just make our images look beautiful.”

For one recent project, Springfield spent six months designing the lighting for Rapunzel’s hair in “Tangled.” His job was to make “her hair would look realistic and look beautiful” during the whole film. For “Wreck-it Ralph,” Springfield “had to light food,” including “a spiral cake mountain.” Food can be challenging, because it often looks unappetizing. For one shot, Springfield and his team took a model of a spaceship and a large cake and ploughed the spaceship into the cake repeatedly, to develop a feel for realistic lighting on icing.

Springfield described his path a curvy, but somewhat serendipitous. He spoke highly of his Mines education and of the wonderful people along the way who helped him achieve his Disney goals.

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