B.S., CSE ’01
Behind the Scenes
After sitting spellbound for two hours in a crowded theater as amazing special effects flash across the screen bringing fantastic stories to life, how many people leave the building saying, “Wow, did you see the engineering in that movie?” The truth is that without engineering —at least without one Notre Dame engineer — the special effects that audiences have loved in some high-profile movies may have looked a little less fantastic than they did.
According to Allen Hemberger, creating images resembling “real life” is difficult because the human eye is extremely sensitive to computer-generated images that look fake. “In addition to the technical aspects of creating believable visual effects, the pace of my job is pretty high-octane, but the work is worth it as I have been able to grow into managerial roles.”
Hemberger’s dual major (computer engineering and art design) prepared him to be able to translate natural phenomena into mathematics and write software programs that could generate a sequence of images resembling the “real thing.” In addition to working on Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, The Lady Killers, Catwoman, X-Men: The Last Stand, and King Kong, Hemberger was part of the visual effects team for Eragon and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
Hemberger began his career in computer animation at Big Idea, Inc., in Chicago, the company responsible for VeggieTales. After that, he moved to San Francisco to work at ESC Entertainment on the Matrix films, Catwoman, and The Ladykillers. He then took a short break from the special effects business to teach courses in visual effects at the University. “Actually, I was laid off,” he says. “It’s the nature of the industry, one of those not-so-fun parts of the job, because you are usually hired ‘per project.’ After a few years working in the business, you end up with friends all over the globe at every studio in the world. Then when a given project ends, you e-mail your buddies and make your next move.” Most recently, Hemberger worked on the 2009 science fiction hit Avatar.
Hemberger believes his experience at Notre Dame and his willingness to work hard are key to his success. “Because my engineering and art advisers worked closely with me to design a curriculum incorporating both of my interests, I ended up with two majors and a rich blend of technical and artistic skills that are vital to the business I’m in.” He has also had several opportunities to teach visual effects courses at Notre Dame and elsewhere. “It’s always great to share what you know and get someone else excited about what you love to do.”
B.S., CEEES ’86
Flying Ships, Sailing Vessels, and More
The third generation of a pioneer logging family, Peter Janicki graduated from Notre Dame in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. (He also holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington.) After a few years working in industry, Janicki decided he wanted to start his own company, but he didn’t want to live in the city. Today, he owns his own company and lives on a 40-acre farm with his wife and five sons. He keeps sheep and, for fun, plows his fields with draft horses. But there is nothing “small town” about the business he and his brother, John, run. Also a Notre Dame alum, John graduated from the University in 1984 with a degree in architecture.
Janicki Industries, at 500 employees strong, is the go-to company for innovative molds for fuselages, superyachts, and other large items made with advanced composite materials. The machines the company uses to create these one-of-a-kind molds may employ off-the-shelf components, but Janicki has designed and built them himself for very specific purposes. And he’s done quite well since founding the company in the early 1990s.
For example, the molds Janicki Industries built for the Boeing 787 are so innovative that they were kept under wraps ... literally. The company, also a leader in the marine industry, develops proprietary tooling processes used by world-class builders. Recent projects include BMW/Oracle’s entry in the 32nd America’s Cup USA 87 and USA 98, owned by billionaire Larry Ellison.
Like other engineers, Janicki is a problem solver, which means he’s not content to rest on his laurels or the company’s approximately $56 million in sales. He is continually working to refine the automated processes on existing projects, while developing new ones, including a revolutionary steam engine that could power vehicles using wood and yard waste. His drive and determination are most likely fueled by something he learned from his father ... “There’s only a penalty for not trying to move forward.”
B.S., ’96 ME; Ph.D., ’01 AME
Mars or Bust
One year. It takes one year for a space craft like NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander to travel from Cape Canaveral to Mars. It took Matt Robinson (B.S., ’96 ME; Ph.D., ’01 AME) and the staff in the Mobility and Robotic Systems section of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory five years to develop, design, and test the lander’s robotic arm so that it would be able to gather soil samples.
Robinson’s first two years on the project were spent in the lab researching and developing vision-based control algorithms for robotic manipulators on mobile platforms (unmanned space vehicles). After that he served as the robotic arm flight software lead responsible for the development, integration, and testing of the lander’s robotic arm flight software. He developed ground software for simulating the arm’s activities and processing the data it retrieved. And, he designed and performed tests on the arm to analyze its capabilities and improve sample acquisition and handling techniques.
But the job didn’t end with a successful launch and landing. After touchdown, Robinson worked as a member of the Phoenix operations team. His duties included planning and sequencing the robotic arm’s activities, as well as processing and analyzing the data. “It has been an adventure,” he says. “It took five years to go from project initiation to landing ... but it was worth it [visiting the Martian pole for the first time].”
According to Robinson, the experience exceeded his expectations, which he attributes to the quality of the individuals on the team. “It has been an honor to work with many of the top engineers and scientists in the field of unmanned space exploration,” he says, “certainly a humbling experience ... because of their dedication and expertise and because of the scope of the project.”
Although it will be years before NASA can send people to Mars, there is much that Robinson and the Phoenix Mars team members can accomplish with similar unmanned missions. In the final weeks of the mission, Phoenix team members attempted to acquire ice samples and process them using the instruments on board the spacecraft, thus providing scientific data on the habitability of Mars — past, present, and future. They hoped to uncover clues about whether life ever existed on Mars, characterize its climate and geology, and determine if it might be habitable.
B.S., EE ’85
In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro
It may sound like a made-for-TV movie, but this real-life story is about a major AIDS epidemic; a growing number of orphans; a popular tourist destination in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro; and a Notre Dame alum who spearheaded a charitable foundation based on all of these elements. It began in 2006 when Stan Taylor (B.S., EE ’85) spent part of his summer in Africa. “The family and I spent a couple of weeks doing the ‘tourist thing,’” he says. “Then I joined a group of 20 other volunteers from Libertyville, Ill., and spent a week with Father Augustine Kawishe and orphans from Mailisita, Tanzania, trying to identify if there were meaningful ways we could help.”
The team, which included a pediatrician, an attorney, a nurse, and a construction specialist, determined that the orphans were healthy enough to be educated, the area was politically and economically stable enough to support development, and the tourism trade brought enough money into the area to sustain a school/guesthouse combination. As a result of this first trip Taylor created a 501(c)3 charitable organization to build a financially self-sustaining educational center that could feed and educate the orphans in the village of Mailisita.
Fr. Kawishe and many local residents had already been working for some time to feed and educate the children who had been fortunate enough to be taken in by extended family. Most of those families would not have been able to provide the children with a home were it not for Fr. Kawishe’s assistance. The two-room school he was running served kindergarten and pre-kindergarten children between the ages of five and seven. This age group is particularly important because, in nearby Moshi and Mailisita, an early education (including learning to speak English) is vital to getting into the overcrowded primary school system and very competitive secondary schools. An early education gives these children a distinctive advantage as they grow and compete for coveted spots in the schools and local job market.
The idea of building a school/guesthouse was logical because there were no major hotel chains operating in the area. Accommodations for safari and climbing expeditions were usually provided in the form of private bed and breakfast facilities featuring 10 to 20 rooms. Following the foundation’s plan, a 14-room facility could generate enough income to support up to 300 primary school students on an ongoing basis.
The Tanzanian government gave its final approval for the school to open in November 2009, teachers and a headmistress were hired in December 2009, and 44 children began class on January 11, 2010.
In addition, the project architect and overall director of construction confirmed that the guesthouse remains on schedule to open in late 2011. For more information, visit http://www.mailisita.org.