Blackhawk High grad wins Oscar, brings new realism to animation

Scott Tady
Beaver County Times

Hayley Iben found a way to make movie characters' hair look more naturally curly and wavy.  

Animated movie characters, that is.

For that achievement, Iben, a 1997 Blackhawk High graduate, earned an Academy Award last weekend. 

The South Beaver Township native, director of engineering for the famed Pixar film studio, officially received her prestigious Oscar award when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a virtual ceremony on Feb. 13, bestowing Scientific And Technical Achievement Awards for 17 filmmaking innovations.

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Iben and three Pixar colleagues, Mark Meyer, John Anderson and Andrew Witkin, created the Taz Hair Simulation System that brought a new level of realism to digital characters in popular animated films like 2012's "Brave" and 2015's "Inside Out."

Iben, who has worked on such popular and acclaimed animated films as "Up," "WALL-E," "Ratatouille" and "Toy Story 3," discussed her award-winning career in a male-dominated industry. 

Q: Can you explain this Taz Hair Simulation system and how it has changed the movies that we see?

A: We developed the Taz Hair Simulation System to achieve the previously unachievable desired artistic look and motion of long, curly hair for the heroine Merida,' as well as to support the various hairstyles for Pixar’s “Brave.” 

To approximate the thousands of interactions found in real hair, we created a new model of the hair that captured the interactions within a single curly lock using physics and a method that efficiently and stably computed the large number of interactions of locks with each other to give Merida’s hair its signature volume. Although we were inspired by long, curly hair, the same hair simulator supports a variety of hairstyles required for our films and, since its creation, has extended the artistic reach possible at the studio as well as enabled hair simulation on all characters needed.

Q: What are some movies you have worked on that use this technology?

A: Taz quickly became Pixar’s de facto hair simulation system, being used on hundreds of animated characters since its creation and on nearly every Pixar film since "Brave." Notable main character hairstyles using Taz for simulating motion were the distinct hairstyles of Joy, Sadness and Disgust from Pixar’s “Inside Out;” the messy hairstyle for Spot in Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur;" the stylized hairstyles of Helen and Dash in Pixar’s “Incredibles 2;” the furry Bunny and Ducky from Pixar’s “Toy Story 4,” and Ian and Barley in Pixar’s “Onward.”

Hayley Iben, photographed at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., on Aug. 8, 2016. (Photo: Virginia Mae Rollison / Pixar)

Q: What has your career as a Pixar engineer entailed?

A: I joined Pixar Animation Studios in 2006 as an intern with the Research group, and transitioned to a full-time position within the Software Research & Development Department, the group responsible for creating and supporting the software used to make films, in 2007. I contributed to the award-winning Presto Animation System by building tools for character articulation and animation, focusing on inverse kinematics and mathematical techniques.

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In 2010, I joined the team that was researching and developing the studio's hair simulation technology, Taz, that debuted in Pixar's "Brave." In 2013, I was promoted to lead software engineer of the simulation engineering team that was responsible for character effects software such as cloth, hair, flesh and skin. In this role, I closely collaborated with production leadership to identify and fulfill needs for the upcoming films. Under my leadership, my team advanced simulation technology for our films, such as the flesh and skin simulation system for Hank on Pixar’s “Finding Dory” and new techniques for cloth simulation for Pixar’s “Coco." I also continued to extend Taz to meet the artistic hairstyle needs in Pixar’s films.

In 2020, I was promoted to director of engineering at Pixar, where I currently oversee the teams that create and support the software used by much of the film production departments at the studio. These departments span the production pipeline, including sets, layout, characters, shading, animation, crowds, simulation, lighting, FX and rendering.

Q: When did you first become interested in a film career?

A: I always loved cartoons as a child and would watch them with my family. My favorite films were the hand-animated Walt Disney films and I was amazed by Pixar’s “Toy Story” when I first saw it in the theater in high school. I think it was at that moment that I realized that I could use my skills with computers to create animation and I wanted to learn more about it in college.

Q: Were you involved in art, animation or movie-making while attending Blackhawk schools?

A: At the time, my artistic outlet was primarily music, being part of the marching, symphonic and jazz bands. I was also interested in learning about computer science and took many computer programming classes, ultimately leading to my career choice.

Q: How did your Duquesne University studies (a bachelor's degree in computer science in 2001) help put you on your career path?

A: Duquesne University's computer science program laid the foundation for my career. Because of the small class sizes, I was able to get valuable one-on-one time with professors, developing my skills as a computer scientist. The professors also took an interest in my career early in my college studies, suggesting research projects available in the department before I was even interested in research. I also took a computer graphics class which sparked my interest for further specialization. This exposure was essential for my preparation for graduate school where I furthered studied computer graphics at the University of California, Berkeley, and earned an MS and Ph.D., ultimately leading to my internship in the Research group at Pixar.

Q: What emotions did you feel upon winning an Oscar?

A: I am deeply honored and thrilled that the Academy selected the Taz Hair Simulation System team for a Technical Achievement Award.

Q: Do you hope to be a role model for young girls interested in a film career? 

A: I hope that by sharing my experiences in various forums I will inspire women to enter computer science and technical fields. Since graduate school, I have actively participated in groups that support technical women, such as being involved with WICSE (Women in Computer Science and Engineering) at UC Berkeley.

While at Pixar, I have participated in several women’s panels and given presentations to high school and college students, sharing my career path and experiences. I am also a founding member of PixWIT, Pixar’s Women in Technology group, and participate in our outreach activities to the community to encourage young women to enter the technology field. I have also continued to publish when possible so that I am an active member of the computer graphics community and helped create Khan Academy’s “Pixar in a Box” Simulation videos.

Hayley Iben, a 1997 Blackhawk High graduate, won an Academy Award last weekend for her technical innovations with Pixar.

Unlike the televised  Academy Awards taking place in April, honoring actors, directors, sound teams, costume designers, composers and cinematographers, the Scientific and Technical Awards are not limited to accomplishments from the previous year. Instead, those achievements must demonstrate a proven record of contributing significant value to the process of filmmakings. 

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“In a year of upheaval, some things remain constant: around the world, extremely clever people are striving to push the technology of film to new heights, and the Academy is privileged to be able to recognize and celebrate their accomplishments,” Doug Roble, chairman of the Scientific and Technical Awards Committee, said. “After a lengthy investigation period, the committee, made up of a diverse group of industry experts, identified 17 different technical achievements that absolutely deserve to be honored.  We congratulate all the inventors for their contributions to our art form.”

Scott Tady is the local Entertainment Reporter for The Beaver County Times and Ellwood City Ledger. He's easy to reach at Follow him on Twitter at @scotttady