Memorable stories and acting give life to great movies, but many of our favorite films are enshrined in cinema history thanks to the people behind the screen, like John Schlag (ECE, ’83). An engineer and artist, Schlag created reality-defying graphics for some of the most famous movies of our time, including Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.
When Schlag attended Carnegie Mellon University, his first engineering job was in the Robotics Institute, where he connected a TV camera to a computer. He digitized frames and wrote software, and in essence, he taught the computer to make sense of what it was seeing. “This is computer vision. In doing this in reverse, to check my work, I became entranced with computer graphics,” he says.
After graduation, Schlag lived on Long Island for several years, working for NYIT Computer Graphics Lab, one of the preeminent computer graphics facilities of its time. NYIT created the graphics for Young Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “It was the folks at Lucasfilm CG that did these two projects; drawn by that work, I left NYIT and headed west,” says Schlag.
His first job in California was with a small graphics house named Island Graphics. Previously, he turned down a position with Pacific Data Images (now part of DreamWorks), as he intended to only accept short-term jobs. In fact, when interviewing with Island Graphics, they told him, “Short term, long term, no problem, we’re just going to put you on the payroll and see how long you stay.”
“It was a vote of confidence in me, and instead of being there two or three months, I stayed 11 months. That is still short for a job tenure, but way longer than I had intended. Island Graphics was a great place to do concept development and prototyping.”
I’m an artist who happens to be reasonably good at technology, and I’ve been able to make a living at it.John Schlag
After a successful start at Island Graphics, he worked for Macromind for three years, and then moved on to Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), where he earned a number of accolades. He was originally hired to work on Terminator 2, but he was also instrumental in making Death Becomes Her, Jurassic Park, and Forrest Gump.All four were Oscar winners for visual effects.
“I worked my hindquarters off to help get each of those into theaters, and it was quite an amazing ride,” he says, as he describes working on those technically innovative films. Take Jurassic Park, for example. There aren’t many people who can claim that they created dinosaurs. “You have this living, halting, breathing, moving thing,” Schlag says. “How do you put texture on the skin?”
According to Schlag, there weren’t many options when he worked on the film. You could lay the skin flat and paint it. The problem with that is it is not a geometrically accurate or faithful representation of what the animal will look like, especially in motion. The other approach is to assemble tiles over the creature, which is exceedingly difficult to paint because where two tiles join, you must make the texture continuous across them.
Luckily, new technology was on the horizon. Pat Hanrahan and Paul Haeberli had written a paper for SIGGRAPH, which is the Association for Computing Machinery’s yearly conference on computer graphics. Their paper put forth the idea that a graphics model could be painted on in three dimensions. Schlag’s job was to figure out how to make this happen—and he did! Schlag and three colleagues created Viewpaint. It allowed an artist to see 3D models, dinosaurs in this case, and spin them around, paint them, press a button, and the applied paint creates textures on the creatures. The program won them the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences, Scientific and Engineering Award, of which there are three grades. The first level is a certificate, the second level is the statuette (which Schlag and his team received), and the third level is an Oscar.
“It was a team effort,” he said. “There’s a lesson for students: most of the things you’re going to be involved in are going to be team efforts. If you interview for a new job, you need to be very specific about your contributions to group projects.”
While the movie business stoked Schlag’s creativity, it was not family friendly. Schlag’s daughter Indira was born between Death Becomes Her and Jurassic Park. When she turned two, Schlag left ILM, because his demanding work didn’t allow him much time to spend with his family. He opened a graphics consulting practice out of his home.
Eventually, Schlag strayed from the visual effects industry to pursue the “more civilized and remunerative” world of high tech. He worked with Nvidia for a couple of years, Sony for four years in their visual effects office, Adobe for three years in their research division, and Google for four years.
Today, Schlag is pursuing his next career as a screenwriter. “I’m from the film world. I am interested in stories—how good stories are crafted, how they’re told,” says Schlag. He’s finished his fourth screenplay and is evaluating the indie filmmaking model.
“Squeezing blood from the stone of the arts over one’s entire career is very, very difficult. I’m an artist who happens to be reasonably good at technology, and I’ve been able to make a living at it.