Professor who worked magic in ‘Hobbit’ to join Clemson center

Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins in the film “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Clemson University professor Robert Geist helped perfect a technique called “normal map filtering” in the movie.

If you watched Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy, chances are you’ve seen some of Clemson University professor Robert Geist’s work.

Geist, a professor at the Clemson School of Computing, spent the fall of 2011 on sabbatical in Wellington, New Zealand, where he worked with Academy Award-winning visual effects company Weta Digital on the film, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

He will be among the first professors to join the faculty at Clemson’s $21.5 million Zucker Family Graduate Education Center in North Charleston.

The center, which opens in the fall of 2016, will give students the opportunity to pursue a doctorate in computer science or a Master of Fine Arts in digital production arts — the first degree programs of their kind available in the Lowcountry.

“There’s a long established arts community in Charleston, so the combination of that with a newly arising tech community makes it an ideal environment for expanding our digital arts degree program,” Geist said.

In New Zealand, he helped perfect a technique called “normal map filtering” to help the characters’ “digital doubles” appear indistinguishable to the moviegoing audience from the human actor.

In the film, all characters — dwarves, hobbits and wizards alike — have digital doubles or computer-generated doppelgangers that are rendered with extreme accuracy — down to the pores on their faces — for scenes where a character is, say, lit on fire or tumbling off a cliff.

For Geist, that meant staring at the computer-generated face of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins for eight weeks straight.

He started Clemson’s digital productions arts program in 1999 along with former art professor Sam Wang. The program stemmed from his interest in computer graphics, particularly in movies like the 1995 film “Jumanji,” where computer-generated lions and monkeys wreaked havoc in small-town New Hampshire. Since then, Clemson digital productions arts and computer science alumni have been credited in almost 200 feature films, Geist said, including “Avatar,” “Twilight,” “Frozen” and the Harry Potter series. The list “goes on and on and on.”

“You can’t find a movie anywhere that doesn’t have a Clemson grad or faculty in the credits anymore,” he said.

And the timing for a new digital-focused graduate program in the Charleston area couldn’t be better, says Ernest Andrade, director of the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation, as the city’s tech economy continues to grow. According to the nonpartisan Milken Institute, Charleston is home to the fourth fastest-growing technology sector behind Merced, Calif., San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

“To me, what the Zucker Center represents is another impediment being stripped away from our path to building a nationally recognized tech economy,” Andrade said. “We have to create an environment to grow more talent.”

Construction of the graduate education center began in January at the former Naval shipyard. Named after InterTech Group CEO and local philanthropist Anita Zucker and her family, the center is the newest addition to Clemson’s Restoration Institute campus.

No plans have been finalized yet for other degree programs, according to Clemson spokesman Paul Alongi, but the center is likely to offer several graduate degrees in engineering. In the future, officials expect the Clemson University Restoration Institute will house about 200 students, 12 faculty members and 40 researchers and support staff.

The Clemson digital productions arts program currently graduates between 10 and 15 Master of Fine Arts students a year, Geist said. With a boost from the Zucker center, Geist aims to grow the program to 100 students. But even that wouldn’t meet companies’ demand for high-tech workers.

“If I had 1,000 graduates in computer science, I can put them all to work in Charleston tomorrow and we don’t have anywhere near that,” Geist said. “Think about it. What don’t you use a computer for? They’re in everything.”