American News Oct 14, 2021 8:43 PM EST

'Anti-racist' computer graphics research seminar highlights industry's overreliance on white skin

The landmark graphic design techniques introduced in the early 2000s used methodology that’s more unique to white people, and not optimal for black skin tones.

'Anti-racist' computer graphics research seminar highlights industry's overreliance on white skin
Nick Monroe Cleveland, Ohio
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A computer graphics expert highlighted the differences in white and black skin tones for computer algorithms, claiming that not only that "textbooks shouldn't be written by only white people," but that the CGI industry is overly reliant on identifying and depicting white skin tones and fails to properly render darker tones.

The livestream event by Barnard Computational Science Center brought in a former Pixar Research Scientist, Theodore Kim. He has since moved on from the company and became an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Yale, where "he investigates biomechanical solids, fluid dynamics, and selected topics in geometry."

His site lists career accomplishments that include "Cars 3," "Coco," "Incredibles 2," and "Toy Story 4."

Kim’s slideshow presentation first introduced the "usual" sort of themes as seen in any standard DEI presentation. He described systemic racism as the "insidious biases" underneath, and is very open towards better hiring practices.

However, then he got technical about the argument and backed his points with data.

In the first part of his presentation, Theodore Kim explored how a 2001 technical paper called "A Practical Model for Subsurface Light Transport" has been influential in the special effects industry in the decades since then.

His central thesis in this section is that the rendering technique for subsurface scattering talks about skin glow only for white people. However, when it comes to black skin "specular reflection" must be used, a separate light transport mode.

Kim cited the example of 2002’s Lord of the Rings The Two Towers and the special effects used on Gollum that made him extremely white in appearance as what was hot at the time. From there he gave a basic timeline of how with few exceptions, depictions of skin when it comes to advancements in the field showed white skin as the default.

He even specifically pointed out Pixar’s own Renderman as demonstrating this practice.

The question is asked by host Dr. Saima Akhtar is an "interdisciplinary question" with what she saw in art history and architecture: "I’m curious about what your thoughts are on computer graphics curriculum or computer science curriculum as it relates to studying computer graphics? Do you think as it is, it can adhere to the kind of interests that you’ve brought to the fore in this presentation, or do you propose that it should be reimagined?

Theodore Kim: "I do think that the teaching needs to be rethought. Quite a bit. For example I was even looking at the textbooks that were out there. And you look at all the computer graphics textbooks, and they’re all written by white people. So like go find a computer graphics textbook that has a person of color on the author list. We found one. Imagine how this shows up reflected in the actual content itself."

In an earlier portion of the Q&A section, Kim said that Pixar’s "Soul" needed to hire outside help to animate the black protagonists in the film, because of the way the particular direction the standard industry lighting models had gone in the years prior.

The overall anti-racist computer graphics research seminar’s stated goal is "lowing the barrier of entry while raising the level of awareness and excitement," per the opening remarks by Rebecca Wright.

It’s a series of talks with their goal being to suss out the ethical and social implications of computers and their applications. This being under the broader agenda of pushing for more diversity and inclusion.

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