The movie industry, though glamorous, is fraught with technical issues. That’s where Kimball Thurston, who majored in computer science and electrical engineering, has made his mark in Hollywood as lead scientist at the Reliance Mediaworks unit formerly known as Lowry Digital.
Thurston began working with image processing pioneer John Lowry in 2005. Their team’s accomplishments in enhancing film quality were acknowledged with a 2012 Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement.
“Movies and video are a neat problem; I’ve been very lucky to make it out here,” says Thurston, who worked as a consultant for Sapient after graduation. “The suit life wasn’t for me, and I moved to California in a fit of madness in the late 1990s.” He joined a digital compositing company, Silicon Grail, where he helped create software for assembling footage. Then, following the firm’s sale to Apple, he moved to Dreamworks Animation.
“I’d known John Lowry for several years; he used Silicon Grail software to prove some of his concepts, and slowly we all started working for him,” says Thurston. “I’m happy he knew about the Academy Award before he died in January—not many people get those awards.”
Thurston’s team has worked on modern productions like 24, Avatar, and The Da Vinci Code and helped restore pieces of cultural history like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and footage of the first moon landing. The team’s accomplishments range from correcting misprocessed film to remedying film warping in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon.
“We’ve gotten film shot with spots on the lens, 3-D footage with bad synchronization, and material with big blocks of missing data,” explains Thurston. “Every situation is unique; the great thing about an MIT education is that you learn to think and solve problems. We know we’ve done our job well when no one can tell we’ve done anything.”
Thurston draws on his computer science classes on a daily basis, and in hindsight, he says that additional advanced mathematics would have been useful. “At the time I thought, ‘I’ll never possibly need that,’” he recalls. “But the truth couldn’t be more different. I went to the Coop a couple of summers ago and bought all the textbooks for the courses I wish I’d taken.”
Thurston enjoys astrophotography, takes advantage of his Southern California location to pursue his love of hiking and wine tasting, and in April celebrated a red-letter day with his marriage to Karin Robinson.