Making the Impossible Possible
New College alumnus' first ISP was a hint of great things to come
by Erich Barganier ‘10
Steve Rosenbluth approached the stage of the 89th Annual Academy Awards ceremony and the crowd erupted into applause. Camera flashes blanketed Rosenbluth and colleagues Joshua Barratt, Robert Nolty and Archie Te with light. As Rosenbluth began his acceptance speech for the Academy’s Scientific and Engineering Award on Feb. 11, he pulled a small, humanoid stop-motion model from his jacket pocket.
“At the age of 19…this little guy appeared,” Rosenbluth said, “and in his stop-motion animated film, he learns that you can’t do it all alone.”
The model was the star of Rosenbluth’s stop-motion animation he made for his first Independent Study Project at New College of Florida. With the guidance of professors across a multitude of disciplines, Rosenbluth, a ’91 graduate, drew upon his education to reshape the world of special effects and design – now recognized with filmmaking’s highest award.
Rosenbluth’s career in film started almost immediately upon entering New College. After garnering several awards for his stop-motion animation he created during his first Independent Study Project (ISP), Rosenbluth took a leave of absence from New College.
“After I made my animated film, I took a job at the Disney Company and moved to Los Angeles doing special effects and modelmaking,” Rosenbluth said. “I came to the realization that I needed a college degree.”
He returned to New College with a goal of marrying technology and art and pursued his research under a self-designed area of concentration, Sculpture and Technological Science. Under the guidance of professors Karsten Henckell, Jack Cartlidge and Peter Kazaks, Rosenbluth built an animatronics system as part of his thesis. “[It was] an actual robotic control system. It made a puppet talk,” Rosenbluth said.
The project succeeded by combining contemporary puppetry effects with a rigorous engineering foundation and influenced Rosenbluths’ creative approach to visual design for the rest of his career. “I wouldn’t have been as multidisciplinary as a person had I not studied art and engineering,” Rosenbluth said. “Coming from a multidisciplinary background landed me into having a portfolio and allowed me to get some work immediately after New College.”
The set of values instilled while attending New College deeply influenced Rosenbluth’s work immediately after his graduation. He joined a Mennonite Central Committee program designed to create workshops that gave puppetry jobs to young men in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “It was kind of like a Peace Corps project that was designed to keep young men out of paramilitary groups,” Rosenbluth said.
The leadership experience that he gained while working in Northern Ireland helped him during his first credited Hollywood job, the dangerous work of controlling hydraulic machines for the feature film “Starship Troopers.”
This project catapulted Rosenbluth into the forefront of Hollywood’s special effects industry. And the puppet control system he made at New College became the basis for his revolutionary Overdrive Motion Management system, a way to control environments and robotic creatures on-screen in real time – the technology rewarded with the Oscar.
“When I left New College, I chose to go into the arts but my skills would have been great for the military. I chose [an artistic] tract because of the values that were instilled in me at New College” –Steve Rosenbluth
If you’ve seen “Life of Pi,” “Pacific Rim” or any blockbusters in the past few years, you’ve probably seen Rosenbluth’s technology in action. In “Star Wars: Rogue One,” spaceships were controlled by a variety of Overdrive hydraulic gimbals, shaking and moving the models around to create the illusion of flying and turbulence.
In the second movie of “The Hobbit” trilogy, there is a sequence where all of the main characters ride down a river in empty wine barrels; the barrels were real and actors sat inside of them while the Overdrive Motion Management System jostled them around inside of it to mimic being carried by water.
“[Overdrive Motion] is so versatile, it was the only thing that could be slotted in to fill the gap between visual and digital effects,” Rosenbluth said. The machinery filled an untapped niche and this achievement led to his Academy Award. One of the most essential skills that Rosenbluth had to develop was imbuing mechanized puppets with subtle emotions, as he did in the film “Alien Resurrection.”
“There is this shot of Sigourney Weaver hugging an alien, and the alien is nuzzling her,” Rosenbluth said. “We managed to turn a machine into a sensual creature on film.”
The versatility of Rosenbluth’s technology has led to other unusual projects. “One of the coolest things was ‘Robot Combat League,’ a SyFy Channel show that lasted for one season,” Rosenbluth said. The series centered on large remotely-controlled robots designed to destroy each other. “We got to battle bipedal robots and I got to participate in robot boxing!” he said.
The experience gave him a new goal for his company, one with implications beyond Hollywood: “I would like to finish developing an autonomous walking robot,” Rosenbluth said.
His trailblazer work would not have been possible without the philosophies that were introduced to him at New College.
“When I left New College, I chose to go into the arts but my skills would have been great for the military. I chose [an artistic] tract because of the values that were instilled in me at New College,” Rosenbluth said. “Always take risks and do the seemingly impossible.”
Like winning an Oscar? Oddly, not so much, he said.
“Winning an award was nice, but people like me don’t believe they do ‘great things’, and are never satisfied with what they’ve done — I’m always moving on to the next better thing,” he said. “The award announcement was exciting, though by the time it was handed to me six weeks later, I wasn’t deeply yearning for it anymore.
“The thing that has always been most rewarding to me is the thrill you get when you first turn something on – and it works. The first taste I got of that was during my thesis project at New College, late one night in the science building. I’ve been pursuing those ‘It’s alive!’ moments ever since, and I’ve been lucky enough to get myself into a position to do so time and time again as a career.
“Oh, and the award was a lot heavier than I expected.”