Her curriculum vitae has things most academic CVs have: papers published in journals, invited talks at conferences, editorial service at professional journals. But Barbara Meier’s route to the Computer Science faculty at Brown has lots more: Klingons, Batman, a near miss on an Oscar, credits on several feature films, and three music videos with Michael Jackson.
Yes, that Michael Jackson, the Gloved One.
“He was just coming off Thriller. He had tons of money and wanted to do something really state of the art next. That was Black or White,” Meier said. “Our part was morphing the faces of 14 dancers and models while they were doing the dance routines. It became an iconic piece of music video in the early 1990s. Michael came to our studio and I met him. He was incredibly soft-spoken in person, but on the set when they said ‘Action,’ he was the most confident, dynamic actor I’d ever seen.”
Meier came to Brown in 1979 as a physics concentrator, expecting also to do a lot of work in visual art. Those plans changed, as plans often do at Brown. She signed up for introductory concentration courses in both physics and computer science.
“My adviser convinced me that taking both was not the best idea. I went to the first physics lecture; it was interesting but dry. Then I went to Andy van Dam’s class and it had skits and theater and was so dynamic. I figured that if I had to choose one, this was definitely it.”
Computer graphics also meant she could continue her interest in art. She took classes at RISD, mostly in photography and animation, and worked her way through two Brown degrees in computer science (A.B., 1983; Sc.M., 1987). Her graduate project involved palette selection, demonstrating that an expert system could present an initial set of colors for further tuning by a human expert.
After additional work in experimental animation and filmmaking at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she moved to California, where she worked as a visual effects animator, technical supervisor, and art director.
“I did some work on painterly rendering when I was at Disney — getting computer-generated images to look more like work done with traditional media — and wrote a paper on it. Those ideas blossomed into a field called non-photorealistic rendering. You can see it in TV commercials,” she said. “It was used in a feature film, What Dreams May Come, in which Robin Williams wakes up in heaven — a painted world, because his wife was a painter. It was a very dark movie — I don’t recommend it — but that scene was really cool. It was the first time the technique was used, and it won an oscar for best visual effects.”
(That was the near miss on an Oscar. After presenting the paper by videoconference from California to New Orleans, Meier gave birth to a son. She had to decline a subsequent offer to be the visual effects superviser on the film. Years later, her grown son gave her a small Oscar of her own, which sits on a bookshelf in her office with other souvenirs of the film industry.)
She and her husband David Laidlaw, professor of computer science, came back East in 1998 and returned to the Department of Computer Science at Brown. She became a researcher in non-photorealistic rendering, then a visiting lecturer teaching the 3-D animation course (2003-06), then adjunct assistant professor adding a second computer animation course (2006-12), and now a member of the regular faculty.
“Making a film or an animation — that’s the focus of my teaching now — is normally a collaboration of 300 people at a place like Pixar. A single person making a film is rare,” she said. “At Pixar they always focus on the story. If the story doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is or if everyone’s clothes and gestures are perfect and the grass blows in the wind just so. I ask my students about every detail: Does it support the story? They only have a limited time to complete their projects. They have to choose the best detail. Always.”
The stories she and her students work on are not patterned after heroic Hollywood dramas or Disney fantasies. The starting point is more likely to be about conflicts or experiences on a smaller scale — the first day of school, for example — in which people can recognize their own lives and experiences. By design, her students in CS 125 go through the entire production pipeline in a single semester: making geometric models, putting surfaces on them, putting those objects into a scene, lighting the scene, deciding angles from which to film, animating, rendering. It has acquired the reputation as one of the most time-intensive classes on campus, Meier says.
“Consistently in their evaluations at the end of the semester, students will say, ‘This was the most time-consuming, but the most fun and the most rewarding project I’ve done at Brown.’ So I know I’m doing something right. They are incredibly proud of their work. We have a screening at the end of the semester, and they bring their friends. It’s been standing room only for the last few years; I’ve got to find a new room.”