An Aggie at the Oscars
Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016
Utah State University alum Rahul Thakkar is a 2016 Oscar® winner and will be presented a Science and Technical Achievement Academy Award® Saturday, Feb. 13, in Beverly Hills.
Rahul Thakkar and his wife at the presentation in Beverly Hills. (photo courtesy Rahul Thakkar)
Thakkar (second from right, front) with members of the original PDI team from the late 1990s. The group includes six academy award winners. (photo courtesy Rahul Thakkar)
Thakkar (far left) in "Paparazzi Corner." (photo courtesy Rahul Thakkar)
Rahul Thakkar actually left his home in India because he figured it would be easier to make movies in Hollywood than it would be in Bollywood.
“Well … no,” he now says laughing. “It’s not. It’s a lot harder!”
Still, after securing a master’s degree in computer graphics from Utah State University in 1995 — which led to a digital movie-making toolkit of sorts he designed for DreamWorks Animation, and, later on, a number of patents — Thakkar is now a part of Hollywood’s most celebrated inner circle. He’s an Oscar® winner and will be presented a Science and Technical Achievement Academy Award® Saturday, Feb. 13, in Beverly Hills.
Unlike other Academy Awards® to be presented this year, the achievements receiving Scientific and Technical Awards need not be produced within any given time frame. Rather, as the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stipulates, achievements like Thakkar’s “must demonstrate a proven record of contributing significant value to the process of making motion pictures,” usually over an extensive period of time.
Thakkar is the creator and designer of what became DreamWorks’ Animation Media Review System, a set of software solutions designed, among other purposes, to “keep technology out of the artists’ way while helping them do what they do best — create art.”
It’s an intense product, Thakkar says, but in its simplest form, the system allows every director, production manager, artist, department supervisor — everyone involved in making a movie — powerful access and review capabilities throughout the entire project, anywhere and on any scale. So, if one needs to reduce speed for lip-sync or sound fixes, or increase the frame rate, or review frame-by-frame, forward or reverse, what another department may have just added to the process, Thakkar’s system facilitates it all — on a desktop computer, a TV screen, in 3D or for an IMAX production.
“Imagine YouTube on steroids,” he says.
Thakkar says Dr. Larre Egbert, a since-retired professor in Utah State University’s College of Engineering, would just challenge him “with interesting problems.”
“I would write these little tools based on some of the challenges he posed to me,” Thakkar says of Egbert. “But I always told him I wanted to do something that I can pick up right out of school, take to the industry and make it work. He was just this guy who gave that level of freedom.”
Thakkar is now proudly telling the world his Utah State experience “absolutely” opened Hollywood’s doors. In fact, two days before he defended his final thesis, he received a letter making his lifelong dream a reality: an official job offer from an animation studio. There his work was soon noticed by Pacific Data Images, a studio that had been launched about the same time as Pixar. PDI produced Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” and “Remember the Time” videos as well as the first digital Batman, a Pillsbury Dough Boy commercial and a 3D episode of The Simpsons.
Based on Thakkar’s early successes in designing software solutions, PDI invited him to join the studio, saying it might soon be working on an animated film that was “completely hush, hush.”
The film turned out to be Antz, which was funded by DreamWorks, which soon would be diving into its massively successful Shrek franchise.
“Around the time Shrek was in production, they realized PDI was actually a gold mine and they just bought us out,” Thakkar says, “and so I became part of DreamWorks Animation.
“It was such a cool time,” Thakkar says of his early days in the industry, “lots of energy; lots of ideas flying around.”
He was part of a small team of just 10 or 12 people then, whose average age was around 25 years old.
“We had strict standards and we all adhered to those standards and became some pretty decent programmers and designers of software systems,” Thakkar says.
Thakkar adds that it was commonplace for people to bring “impossible problems” to him and his team to solve. In that regard, it didn’t feel too different from studying under Egbert at Utah State. Thakkar quickly became known for coming up with custom solutions to the challenges and one day realized he had actually designed more of a general toolkit from which the entire movie industry could benefit.
The system, still in use, has been used in all of DreamWorks’ animated feature films and on a number of live-action films as well. Thakkar lists working on Shrek and The Legend of Bagger Vance as his personal favorites.
“I did not write the software to win an Academy Award®,” Thakkar says. “I wrote it because my buddies, whom I was spending my life with, were in pain and were trying to do all of this work without the right tools.”
Thakkar left the visual FX industry in 2002. His talents and skillset as an innovator have since been used in a variety of industries, including defense, aerospace, sports, access and control and security, which makes his Oscar®, perhaps, ever more interesting. He’s now working for a subsidiary of Boeing on the East Coast, where, since the announcement, his colleagues have had their fun, saying “OK, you won an Oscar® — now what?” Or asking him if he’s ready to quit.
“My boss took a picture of an Oscar® and slapped my face on top of it,” Thakkar says, “all sorts of funny stuff.”
“But other than that, what change is it going to make in my life? I’m going to go to the awards ceremony with my wife, we’re going to have a great time with my old friends. I’m going to visit DreamWorks and kind of show my wife what my life was then and tell her, ‘Look, you know, I wasn’t kidding when I said I did all these things.’”
After all, Thakkar says, everybody knows there are three things NOT to do once you win an Academy Award®: “No. 1, don’t leave your job; No. 2 is don’t ask for a raise; and No. 3 is don’t tell anyone that you won an award and therefore you’re right.”
Instead, Rahul Thakkar has been making thank-you calls to everyone who has helped him throughout his career. And people throughout the world — especially at Utah State University and in India — are rightfully enthralled.
Writer: Jared Thayne, 435-797-1153, firstname.lastname@example.org