Science is changing the world of animation. Filmmakers are reviving old techniques, like rotoscoping, and making it new. And a group of university mathematicians has created an algorithm that makes animated hair look more realistic.

“A Scanner Darkly” uses rotoscoping, a technique revived by MIT graduate Bob Sabiston, in which live actors are filmed and then animated, frame by frame. Rotoscoping was first used by cartoonists in the 1930s. For “A Scanner Darkly,” it took about 500 hours of computer time to create a minute of film.

Hair tends to look flat in animated films, because in real life, each strand of hair individually reflects light. Now Cornell University computer scientists Steve Marschner and Jonathan Moon have created a mathematical formula that allows computer animators to create the same effect. In order to get this just right, animators need to calculate the path of each ray of light back to the original light source. Since this requires hours of calculations, computer artists used to have resort to approximations, but now these mathematicians have devised a formula that does it automatically.

Marschner won an Academy Award in 2004 for creating a method of depicting translucent materials, including human skin, which helped to make the character of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films more realistic. His new method for making hair look realistic helped to create the computer animated version of the actress in the arms of the computer animated gorilla in the 2005 version of “King Kong.”

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