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The Globe and Mail

Canadian in Oscar-winning trio for program that makes ‘Hobbit’ creatures more realistic

This publicity file photo released by Warner Bros., shows the character Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the fantasy adventure "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

Warner Bros./AP

A Canadian is being lauded for his work in developing the digital program that made the fantastical creatures seen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes appear more realistic.

James Jacobs, along with Simon Clutterbuck and Dr. Richard Dorling, who are British, will be among 25 recipients of plaques and certificates from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizing technical movie-making achievements. The trio are getting an award for their development of the Tissue Physically-Based Character Simulation Framework.

A ceremony will be held Feb. 9 in Los Angeles.

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Jacobs, who grew up in Scarborough, Ont., says the technology works from the inside out to simulate the anatomical structures underlying a character's skin. It's a departure from the traditional way of developing a character, going from the surface inward.

Jacobs, who works for Weta Digital in New Zealand, said in an interview from Wellington that they draw inspiration from humans and animals like dogs and bears to create realistic effects.

"We're building up the anatomy and we're using the same sort of approaches that are found in engineering or medical science where we're solving the actual elastic properties of the musculature and fat and skin ... and just sort of build it up to let you have a character that looks convincing, hopefully, and get the performance across a lot more effectively," explained Jacobs, who will be 41 on Monday.

Jacobs, who took courses in art and film at the Ontario College of Art and Design and Ryerson University in Toronto, went to Weta in 2004 to work on King Kong, the remake of the 1933 film.

"The original was a movie I quite liked, so I wanted to come here to work on that and I just sort of stuck around because the other work was pretty great," he said.

"I've always enjoyed art and drawing and making things, I guess just the process of making things, and this is just another way you can express yourself creatively. I like computers, so the two just sort of go hand in hand."

Other staff at Weta are also vying for a visual effects Oscar for The Hobbit, The Avengers and Prometheus. Portions of the Scientific and Technical Awards presentations will be included in the Feb. 24 ceremony.

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Tissue has been used in The Adventures of Tintin and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, as well as The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second in the trilogy slated for release in December.

Jacobs said that a lot of studios reinvent everything for each new project, while Weta works on continuity.

"With each show we keep building on the knowledge that we know and just keep pushing it and pushing it," he said. "The stuff we're doing now, we wouldn't have just been able to jump right into that because it represents years and years of accumulated work."

Unlike other Oscars being handed out this year, achievements receiving Scientific and Technical Awards don't have to have been developed and introduced during 2012. Rather, the achievements must demonstrate a proven record of contributing significant value to the process of making motion pictures.

Two other software developers from Canada are also receiving technical achievement awards Feb. 9.

London, Ont., native Doug James and Vancouver-based Nils Thuerey along with international colleagues Theodore Kim and Markus Gross are being honoured for developing the Wavelet Turbulence software, a digital tool that makes it easier for visual effects artists to control the appearance of gas and smoke on film.

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Jacobs moved his wife and children to Vancouver in 2009 and left Weta for 1 1/2 years before returning to the New Zealand company. He gets back to Canada to visit his family every three months or so. His wife will meet him in L.A. for the awards ceremony.

It's a long commute, he says with a laugh, noting there are a lot of other Canadians working at Weta.

"It's the global economy. You sort of get used to it. Obviously it's not ideal, but the kids are doing really well and work's really great and it's paying the mortgage, so I can't really complain. A lot of people have it a lot harder."

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