Web edition: February 8, 2013
To compute how a virtual building should collapse on-screen in a convincingly real way, Nafees Bin Zafar of DreamWorks animation uses engineering, computer skills and a toy familiar to most kids. Yes, he starts by pretending the building is made of Lego bricks connected by springs. (He actually keeps a box of Legos — the regular kind without springs — in his office for inspiration.) Virtual Legos form the large chunks into which the building crumbles, while the virtual springs simulate the forces that would act on the building. Once the building starts to collapse, Bin Zafar then ensures that the thousands of computer-drawn pieces fall in a realistic way, without their passing through each other — something that would immediately spoil the illusion of reality.
Bin Zafar is one of a trio of researchers profiled here that use mathematics in the service of creating great fun or wonderment.