Alumnus up for Oscar for visual effects work on “Narnia”

GW alumnus Bill Westenhofer helps create visual effects for major motion pictures that transcend the boundaries of reality, but there was nothing phony about the announcement he heard Jan. 31: he’s up for an Academy Award.

Westenhofer, who graduated from GW with a master’s degree in computer science in 1995, is nominated in the visual effects category for his work on Disney’s blockbuster hit “Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

Although he faces stiff competition from fellow nominees “King Kong” and “War of the Worlds,” Westenhofer said he believes in the quality of his work and thinks his chances of winning an Oscar on March 5 are good. Right now, he said, his major concern is how he will fare appearing on the other side of the lens, in front of a national television audience.

“I’ll try not to scratch my nose when the camera is on me,” he joked.

Westenhofer’s employer works for, Rhythm & Hues, was in charge of Narnia’s lion, named Aslan, and the battle sequence at the end of the movie. The sequence required the digital construction of more than 40 creature types with hundreds of styles of armor, fur and weapons, Westenhofer said. These creatures were then placed in a battle containing 20,000 individuals, all animated through the use of the artificial intelligence program Massive, he explained.

The Academy recognition is a dream come true for Westenhofer who in many ways has been preparing for the night his entire life. He has been in continual pursuit of working to blend his two passions, art and computer science, he said, and ever since he was young he could be found drawing and painting. In high school, he began to experiment with computers.

“It was actually my high school art teacher who suggested I explore computer graphics,” Westenhofer said. “I took her advice, though not directly at first … I wasn’t formally learning computer graphics at (first), but I kept taking art classes where I could, and would channel any projects that were at my discretion into graphics areas.”

Once he graduated from Bucknell in Pennsylvania, Westenhofer moved to the District in order to work, and he consequently began studying for his master’s in computer science at GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. Under the direction of James Hahn, chair of the computer science program, Westenhofer began specifically studying graphic design.

“Bill is just the latest in a long line of success stories to come out of the computer science program,” Hahn said. “His achievements only further the reputation of our program; they do not create it.”

Westenhofer was more than an animator on the “Narnia” project. As visual effects supervisor, he was engaged in every aspect of production, supervising a team of more than 400 animators, lighters, compositors, match-movers and technicians to finish the 400 shots his company created for the film.

According to the Internet Movie Database, at imdb.com, Westenhofer also served as a visual effects supervisor for “Elf,” “The Rundown,” “Men in Black II” and “Stuart Little.”

Westenhofer said he was heavily involved in the pre-planning of the “Narnia” effects work and the supervision of on-set photography in New Zealand.

“I spent a good part of 2004 actually down on – location in New Zealand. About half of the shoot was done on soundstages in Auckland, and the rest was scattered about several remote locations all over the South Island,” Westenhofer said.

He added, “The battle sequence was shot over six weeks in a location that required helicopter access for much of it, so I was lucky enough to see a great deal of that beautiful locale from the air.”

Helicopter rides aside, the post-production process was tedious, Westenhofer said, recalling that it took two years of work to bring Aslan the lion to its finished “onscreen” state.

Although Westenhofer rarely programs today, he said the skills he mastered while at GW are useful when a programmer tries to “sneak something past” him, permitting him to produce the best finished product technology allows.

In anticipation of the red carpet award ceremony, Westenhofer said he “pleads the fifth” when asked if he has anything prepared for an acceptance speech.

-Ryan Holeywell contributed to this report.

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