Clemson University Feature Stories

Clemson professor Jerry Tessendorf, left, received an Academy Award for Technical Achievement in 2008, and his software was used in the 2012 film <i>Life of Pi</i>, winner of the 2013 Academy Award for 'Best Visual Effects.'

Jerry Tessendorf’s water simulation software has major impact on film industry

by Molly Collins
Media Relations, Class of 2013

Roll out the red carpet — an Academy Award winner is in town.

If you’ve seen some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster films, chances are that you’ve seen the work of Clemson’s own Jerry Tessendorf. The director of Clemson’s Master of Fine Arts in Digital Production Arts (DPA) program, Tessendorf has made extensive contributions to the film industry with the development of his water simulation software. He received an Academy Award for Technical Achievement in 2008, and his software was used in the 2012 film Life of Pi, winner of the 2013 Academy Award for “Best Visual Effects.”

Tessendorf’s work with this type of software began during his days in the defense contracting industry where he developed tools for creating a natural environment simulation specifically of the ocean.

The tools he developed became widely used in filmmaking. In fact, his software was used in films such as Waterworld, Titanic and Django Unchained.

Tessendorf was introduced to Clemson and its DPA program during his time at Rhythm and Hues, a Los Angeles-based visual effects company, which employs a number of Clemson graduates.

“The DPA program has sent people into the VFX [visual effects] industry for 12 years. At Rhythm and Hues, I worked with many of them, and had lunch with three of the best every day,” he said.

Tessendorf took the helm of Clemson’s DPA program in 2010. Clemson’s program stands out because its curriculum includes two VFX components — art and technology. While most schools focus on one or the other, Clemson prioritizes both.

“The DPA program is unique among digital media programs in the country in producing graduates with the ability to fit into many parts of the production process,” Tessendorf explained. “DPA alumni hold many different technical and creative positions: software developer, pipeline technical director, technical animator, lighter, production manager, matte painter, match mover, FX technical director and more.”

The program’s broad curriculum has produced graduates who find jobs in the entertainment industry’s top visual effects companies.

“The first DPA students graduated in 2001, and were hired by Rhythm and Hues, Industrial Light and Magic, and Pixar,” said Tessendorf. “Every year since then, multiple DPA alumni have been hired into those companies and Sony Imageworks, DreamWorks Animation, Double Negative, Framestore and other companies.”

Currently, more than 50 graduates of the program are employed in the entertainment industry, working on 15 to 25 new feature films per year, making a combined 130 films in the last 12 years. And some of those alumni joined Tessendorf on the visual effects team for Life of Pi.

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