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Skokie native Jeremy Selan wins a Scientific and Technical Oscar for computer software Katana

And Academy Award goes to. . .  Skokie native Jeremy Selan.

And the Academy Award goes to. . . Skokie native Jeremy Selan.

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Updated: February 22, 2013 11:01AM

These days, when you see an animated film or a live-action film with animated visual effects, there’s a good chance it was created with the assistance of a relatively new piece of computer graphics software called Katana.

Which explains why Skokie native Jeremy Selan received an Academy Award for technical achievement. Selan, along with two other software developers at Sony Imageworks — the special-effects wing of Sony Pictures — are the folks who created Katana.

Though it began as a program meant to replace a clunky piece of image-compositing software (for mixing live-action footage and visual effects together via the green-screen process) at Imageworks, it soon became clear that Katana had much more wide-ranging potential.

Once up and running, Katana was used to simplify and streamline the work flow involved in Sony animated films, such as 2007’s “Surf’s Up.” Then in 2009, a commercial partner was brought on to sell the technology to other studios and special-effects companies such as Industrial Light and Magic. As a result, Katana has now been used in dozens of major productions such as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” “Men in Black 3,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and the upcoming “Oz the Great and Powerful.”

“I think we’re getting the award this year, because the Academy recognizes our influence on the industry,” said the 1997 Niles North grad, who had envisioned a career in computer-chip design before taking a course in computer graphics his senior year at Cornell University. “That’s when I fell in love with moviemaking and computer graphics. I thought, this is going to be a million times more fun.”

So, what does Katana do, precisely?

Selan puts it this way:

“When they’re watching ‘The Amazing Spider-Man,’ people assume that the Spider-Man they see swinging through New York City is a fake — that he was created in the computer,” he explained. “But the entire city in those shots are also computer-generated. They may not realize that, because there’s so much complexity there. There are people walking on the street, cars moving, etc. — all the complexity you get in the real world.

“Just imagine the challenge involved in creating lighting effects for the city of New York, with 10,000 windows and light sources, where you have to create headlights for every car moving on the streets.”

Katana, he added, allows artists to work with that complexity in an easy way, mainly by letting them divide the background into segments — a single building for example, or a section of the sky and embellish it with new elements or color and lighting effects. Then save those changes and move on.

Though Katana is now “part of the standard set of tools everybody uses to do this work,” Selan mentioned that they are already working on improvements.

“Software is never done,” he said. “There are always things you want to make better. That’s what we’re doing now, working on the next version, which we hope will blow the previous one away.”

Bruce Ingram is a local free-lance writer.

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