Innovations: Carthage professor helped create software for movie special effects

SilhouetteFX was used in “Avatar.”
SilhouetteFX was used in “Avatar.”

Carthage College professor Perry Kivolowitz won the 2019 Engineering Emmy Award for his work with SilhouetteFX, a visual effects software that is “invisible” and yet present in many movies and TV shows.

SilhouetteFX was used in “Game of Thrones,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and more than 100 TV and movie titles since the software’s inception in 2004. As a SilhouetteFX co-author, Kivolowitz received the award because of his innovative contributions to broadcast technology.

SilhouetteFX is used during post-production, allowing studios to rotoscope, paint and convert 2D into 3D – three editing tools used to recreate fantastical worlds and concepts that are unnatural and could not have otherwise been created in the real world.

“In SilhouetteFX, the idea is to identify contours in a moving picture so that the software will, once identified, track and continue to surround, so that what’s inside those contours can be overlaid on different backgrounds,” Kivolowitz said.

In the days of Koko the Clown, Betty Boop and Popeye, artists used rotoscoping to project photographed live-action images onto a glass panel and then trace over the image. Today, programs like SilhouetteFX allow animators to digitally trace over motion picture footage, frame by frame, to produce realistic images and action more efficiently.

Rotoscoping can be thought of as a “cousin” of the green screen, Kivolowitz said. It accomplishes a similar task, but sometimes a green screen is not feasible, and modern-day rotoscoping is needed.

Carthage College Computer Science Professor and SilhouetteFX co-author Perry Kivolowitz.
Carthage College Computer Science Professor and SilhouetteFX co-author Perry Kivolowitz.

“Perhaps you’re filming the liftoff of a helicopter and it’s in a lot in Burbank, California, but it’s supposed to be in Iraq,” Kivolowitz said. “There probably isn’t a 7-Eleven, telephone poles and Hollywood signs in Iraq and you can’t put a curtain behind a helicopter.”

Most 3D movies today are filmed in 2D, but released in 3D. For the purposes of 2D-to-3D conversion, SilhouetteFX also identifies those same contours as rotoscoping, Kivolowitz said.

“By tracing contours in the scene and assigning depth to the contours through a mathematical process, the parallax of the missing eye is computed so that you get a 3D scene out of a 2D scene,” he said.

Photoshop may be a great tool to remove a blemish on a person’s face in one photo, but what if the blemish needs to be removed in a motion picture? SilhouetteFX uses “painting” to remove or add effects to multiple frames, hundreds of times.

“If it were a moving picture, the painting would have to be done exactly the same way 24 to 120 times per second, and that’s not humanly possible,” Kivolowitz said.

What makes SilhouetteFX so innovative is its proficiency at tracking elements of an image or a scene and then replicating those elements on hundreds and even thousands of frames, Kivolowitz said. It saves a lot of time for artists and a lot of money for companies, he said.

“We’re talking about saving enough time that shots that would not have been practical became practical; performing some effect which would have been too expensive due to labor, now becomes doable because the labor involved was cut down so much,” he said.

Kivolowitz’s contributions to television and movie post-production date back to the mid-1990s when he received an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement for his work with “Forrest Gump” and “Titanic.” In 1992, his contributions to “Babylon 5” also earned him an Emmy Certificate.

Elastic Reality Inc., a company Kivolowitz created prior to SilhouetteFX, produced the software used to make President John F. Kennedy’s lips move in “Forrest Gump.”

In 2019, SilhouetteFX won another Academy Award after being used in “Avengers: Infinity War” and other 2019 Oscar-nominated movies.

In September, Kivolowitz and his partners sold SilhouetteFX to Boris FX, a Boston-based visual effects and video editing software developer.

Despite Kovolowitz’s and his company’s accolades, not many know about SilhouetteFX, even though the product has been seen by millions. The reality is, if the program is used correctly and expertly, it shouldn’t be noticed by anyone, Kivolowitz said.

“It’s a source of a lot of pride and just a little frustration, in that nobody knows who is behind the technology that created the effects,” Kivolowitz said. “The people who use the software get credit but the people who invented the technology behind it do not. And I wish we did.”

SilhouetteFX
Madison and Los Angeles
Innovation: SilhouetteFX visual effects software
Founders: Perry Kivolowitz, Paul Miller, Marco Paolini and Peter Moyer
Founded: 2004
silhouettefx.com

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Brandon Anderegg
Brandon covers startups, technology, banking and finance. He previously worked as a general assignment and court reporter for The Freeman in Waukesha. Brandon graduated from UW-Milwaukee’s journalism, advertising and media studies program with an emphasis in journalism. He enjoys live music, playing guitar and loves to hacky sack.