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Alumni Spotlight: Behind the Scenes Look at Jim Berney’s Hollywood Success Reveals Admiration for Academia

Jim Berney
ICS alumnus Jim Berney ’89. (Photo courtesy of Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler)

It all started with a book on ray tracing — a rendering technique in computer graphics for generating an image. By sparking a new interest, that book put UCI computer science graduate Jim Berney ’89 on a path toward becoming an Academy Award-nominated freelance visual effects supervisor. His portfolio of work includes “The Green Lantern” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and his visual effects company, WormStyle, was responsible for nearly 100 shots for the movie “Divergent.” Berney has worked on movies that have gone on to become Academy Award nominees for Best Visual Effects, including “Stewart Little,” and  in 1996, he was nominated for an Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Visual Effects for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” His most recent projects include “Aquaman,” “Pacific Rim 2” and the upcoming “Minecraft” movie. Here, he takes a moment to reflect on his journey from UCI to the Oscars to his induction into the 2019 ICS Hall of Fame.

What led you to attend UCI and study computer science and AI?
I was never the best student in high school — I was a late bloomer. I had to go to a city college first to get my grades up and to fulfill the language requirement. UCI gave me the opportunity to study at the highest level. I wasn’t admitted as an information and computer science (ICS) major though. I came in as an economics major. I worked with the ICS department on a path that would allow me to get into the very competitive and impacted ICS degree program. Once in, I was intrigued with the somewhat new and exciting field of AI. I was fortunate enough to learn from and do research with some of the best.

How did you first get involved with visual effects?
After receiving my B.S. in computer science, I worked for DARPA under the supervision of UCI professor Rick Selby. Our offices were on the UCI campus. One day, at a book fair on campus, I saw a book on ray tracing. It was really interesting and because the field was still pretty new, I thought there was a lot of growth there, so I went back to school. I received my master’s in computer science [from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo] with a focus on computer graphics. From there, I was hired into the industry as a programmer. I quickly moved from programmer, to artist, to supervisor. My experience with software engineering from UCI gave me the tools and the work ethic to solve problems and move up quickly.

What has been your favorite project?
As tough as the work is, in hindsight there are things I cherish about each project. It’s usually about the people. “Divergent” was a special one for me. The director, Neil Burger, was super cool to work with. The editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, was on the first “Harry Potter” with me. It was just an overall collaborative experience. Most of all, I enjoyed solving the problem of the mirror-room sequence. It was a tricky one. I spent hours staring into a mock-up mirror room the art department made up for me — visons of vectors filling my head. It was a lot of planning and work, but it paid off. I am very proud of what we did there.

Jim Berney on a film set
Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler captures Jim Berney during filming of “Divergent.”

What was the best part of working on “The Chronicles of Narnia” and being nominated for an Oscar?
The travelling was extremely tiring, and the long hours were tough, but I look back on it fondly. We went to some extreme places. Technically and creatively, it was a challenge to create so many life-like talking/furry animals. It was extremely rewarding to see all our efforts come to fruition. Having been recognized for the work was just icing on the cake — though putting on a tux is always fun!

How has your ICS education help you throughout your career?
The visual effects industry is really a never-ending series of problems to overcome. ICS teaches people problem-solving at the highest level. I apply those skills every minute of the work day.

Can you share any memorable ICS moments or tell us about a favorite or influential professor?
There was so much. Mostly I remember the comradery of my friends — whether it was studying for an impossible final or playing “Dungeons and Dragons.” It’s tough to call out a specific professor. They all were extraordinary. I think Rick Selby and the research I did for him gave me a great software engineering background for all my future work to stand on.

What was your reaction to learning you were being inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame?
I was really honored. I mean that sincerely. I know the Hollywood movie thing may seem cool and exciting to those not in the business, but to me, I look up to the professors of the world. I have a romantic view of academia and feel this is the highest recognition I can receive. School wasn’t always easy for me. I had to work hard to prove I belonged there. Being part of this group is a big deal to me.

Any words of advice for ICS students?
Study hard but enjoy your college days. Learn as much as you can and take advantage of all the opportunities UCI offers. With what you learn and experiences you gain, you’ll be able to achieve anything you want in life.

Shani Murray