As CTO of Aardman Animations, Steven Shapiro ’99 is responsible for all the sophisticated technology that makes movie magic possible—from lights and cameras to the action created by digital effects, processing, and production.
“What we try to do on the technology side is provide tools and workflows and use technology to move obstacles out of the way of our creatives to enable them to tell the story they want to tell,” Shapiro says. At Aardman, those stories range from shorts featuring the company’s signature Wallace and Gromit characters to the full-length film Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, releasing this year.
Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Shapiro never imagined a career in entertainment. He loved computers and was interested in real-world applications of science and math. At MIT, he majored in electrical engineering and computer science, gained confidence in his own strengths, and learned how to work with a variety of people.
After graduating, he worked for IBM but found he missed collaborating across disciplines. He moved to Los Angeles for a new start, but then the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, and tech jobs became scarce. “A friend of mine, Rony Kubat [’01, SM ’08, PhD ’12], was out in LA working for Sony Pictures Imageworks and said, ‘Why don’t you come work for us?’”
At Sony Pictures Imageworks, Shapiro learned about effects animation—creating snow, rain, fire, and fog—and gained insight into lighting, compositing, and character rigging (a technique used to move animated characters). He also started on the path to discovering his real strength: optimizing teams for technology innovation.
Shapiro likes finding better ways to do things. While leading the production technology team at Marvel Studios during the making of Black Panther, for example, he learned that the file sorting and delivery system was causing huge delays. By creating hard links to centrally stored data, he provided quick access to materials while saving terabytes of storage space.
It was a simple solution, but no one else had thought of it. “I happened to know the entire technology stack because of MIT,” says Shapiro, who was also at Marvel for the production of Avengers: Endgame. “Understanding where and how to use technology is where true innovation lies.”
Shapiro went on to work as Disney’s principal architect for motion picture innovation before becoming Aardman’s first CTO in 2022. Now he is working on ways to tell stories in multiple media without re-creating assets such as sets every time. “We’re continuing to innovate,” he says.
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