MIT Sloan alumnus wins Scientific and Technical Oscar for visual effects software

April 4, 2013

Visual effects software co-created by an MIT Sloan alumnus won a Scientific and Technical Oscar this year. The software, Mocha, simplifies motion tracking in post-production, allowing for improved visual effects in movies, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Black Swan, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest—remember the pirate’s spinning eyeball or the feathers growing out of Natalie Portman’s arm as it morphs into a wing?

Allan Jaenicke, MBA ’11, began to develop the software in 2000, eventually becoming CEO of a new company, Imagineer Systems, which would rise to the forefront of the film industry both in Hollywood and around the world. He later attended MIT Sloan and today is an associate at McKinsey & Co.

The Academy Awards

Allan Jaenicke, MBA '11Allan Jaenicke (l), along with Dr. Philip McLauchlan, accepts his Oscar in Beverly Hills. Photo by Michael Yada.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives out the “Sci-Tech” Academy Awards in February, two weeks before the traditional televised ceremony. Companies and organizations apply for the award and then go through a lengthy interview process with committee members. Jaenicke said that each member of the organization speaks about their role in development of their product. Winners are notified in advance of the ceremony and each team member receives an award.

“Our technology has had an impact on movie making. No other company has software that does the same thing as Mocha,” Jaenicke said. “Going to L.A. to receive the award was a lot of fun. I put on a tux; rented a Porsche 956, and my wife and I attended the ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was a real Hollywood moment. We each had a few minutes on stage to thank the people who made it all possible. Winning the award was a great recognition of all the hard work we put in.”

The creation of Mocha

Jaenicke, a native of Denmark, first created the Mocha software almost by chance. While studying in London in 2000, Jaenicke had a social worker friend who had trouble finding her patients’ homes using traditional maps. Jaenicke borrowed a video camera from a nearby university and filmed landmarks along her driving route. He then created an application that would string the video images together to make a visual map.

Jaenicke began to work with colleague Dr. Philip McLauchlan on the algorithm. They took multiple images and stitched them together to create a 360-degree mosaic. Testing the application on a video of Stefan Edberg playing tennis, the software removed the athlete from the tennis court. They showed the video to a colleague of McLauchlan’s who worked in the movie industry. He told them they had created software that could remove wires, rigs and other equipment from movie frames—and that their software was better than most.

The novel tracking algorithm developed by Jaenicke and McLauchlan, follows the movements of, for example, an actor’s arm by selecting a general region around the arm, instead of a specific point, such as the elbow or a fingertip, as had been done in the past. This allows the visual effects artist to obtain the accurate motion of the arm much faster, Jaenicke said. What once took several days now took just a few hours with a higher quality result.

Even though Jaenicke and McLauchlan knew little about video post-production, they agreed to form a company. Imagineer Systems struggled at first and nearly went bankrupt.

“We launched our first product September 13th, 2001, and our distributor hardly sold any licenses the first 12 months. I began to take the lead in sales and marketing and started to travel and meet people in the film world,” Jaenicke said. “I demonstrated our product to post-production studios, broadcasters, and film crews in Hollywood, New York City, Sydney, Tokyo, and Mumbai, in an effort to sell the product. We then opened a small office in Los Angeles,” Jaenicke said. “After selling the technology for three years, we realized that the coolest thing about it was the tracking technology. We focused on that and started to sell a lot more to various places in Hollywood.”

With the company succeeding, Jaenicke knew he wanted to try something new and change careers. Participation in the week-long Entrepreneurship Development Program at MIT Sloan back in 2006 had sparked his interest, so he applied to MIT Sloan’s MBA program. He left Imagineer in 2009. While on campus, Jaenicke attended a lunch-time presentation about management consulting and that led him to pursue a position with McKinsey.

Now back in Boston, Jaenicke is working on several technology and entrepreneurial projects for McKinsey. His Oscar sits on a mantel above his fireplace at home where his wife and four children can admire it.