Oscar winner plotted a digital route to Silicon Valley via Dublin and Hollywood

13 Sep 2012

Dr Anil Kokaram, an Oscar-winning professor at Trinity College Dublin whose start-up Green Parrot Pictures has been purchased by Google

One of the miracles of the evolving digital media space is how individuals quietly working away on new technologies can send ripples through entire industries, like the movie business. Oscar winner Dr Anil Kokaram, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, who sold his business Green Parrot Pictures to Google’s online video service YouTube last year, is one such individual.

Trinidad-born Kokaram’s technology is credited with revolutionising the post-production process in movies, making possible the spectacular visual effects we nearly always take for granted today. His technology has featured in Casino Royale, X-Men, The Da Vinci Code, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man and King Kong, to name a few.

In 2007, he won an Academy Award for his work in developing breakthrough editing software for the movie industry while working as a consultant for UK-based The Foundry.

Kokaram’s technology uses motion estimation to embed special effects and enhance movies in an automated rather than manual fashion as had been the case for decades. The technology used advanced algorithms to track the movement and properties of every pixel in every one of 25 pictures per frame in every second of a movie.

The technology also enables motion picture restoration and has been used to restore some of the earliest films shot in Ireland. It has also been used to restore footage of US President John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963.

While basking in the glow of the Academy Awards, Kokaram – listed this year among the ITLG Hollywood 50 – continued to humbly go about his day job as an associate professor at Trinity College Dublin and at the same time focus on his emerging start-up Green Parrot Pictures.

Four years later, Google’s YouTube acquired his start-up for an undisclosed sum.

Now YouTube intends to make advanced image-editing tools available to the millions of creators who upload 35 hours of video a minute using Kokaram’s technology.

Making magic possible

Kokaram explains he left Trinidad in 1986 to study engineering at Cambridge. In 1989, he embarked on a PhD in signal processing and the particular subject he focused on was motion-picture restoration.

“In 1986, the audio CD hit the market and people began to realise the importance of recapturing and protecting old recordings. People were also thinking about doing the same with video, not really knowing how big DVDs would be by 1998. Between 1989 and 1996 I developed these algorithms for restoration. When I moved to Trinity College in Dublin I began establishing connections with broadcast archive organisation across Europe. They had started to get more content producers approaching them for content to reuse for DVD and I also began to work with broadcasters who wanted to restore the quality of archive film.”

As a result of his quiet efforts, Kokaram became one of the first people to automate the restoration process. Around that time he was approached by The Foundry to employ these algorithms to make movies more robust and make difficult-to-shoot camera scenes. “The famous bullet scene in The Matrix, for example, would require a lot of cameras around a scene but often you can’t get the cameras close enough together and you need to construct new views in between cameras.

“So to capture tricky camera trajectories, The Foundry asked me to help translate these algorithms across multiple domains.

“Up until that point nobody in post-production could do this stuff automatically and nor was it available as a software suite for post-production houses.”

The popularity of the software created by Kokaram through his work as a consultant with The Foundry led to the Academy Award in 2007. “The suite of tools became so popular that it was used by nearly every post-production house.”

In fact, Kokaram points out, the employment of special effects is present in nearly every movie today, even ordinary scenes most viewers wouldn’t think of as special effects. “Most people think special effects are about seeing a dinosaur going down a street in New York, for example. There are a lot of secret things going on in films. For example, when Peter Jackson shot King Kong he realised that the film was too grainy and so we had to remove grain from the film and then put the grain back in. Nobody is going to see that stuff but it really is an important part of making a picture look good.”

You the consumer are also the media

While Kokaram was helping the movie industry make the most of digital technology, he was aware of a shift in terms of the likelihood that one day soon every individual would be carrying devices capable of HD video recording.

“It was a watershed in the sense that suddenly I was working with these guys who were only too happy to use the technology inside their toolkit and at the same time were exposing me and the rest of the lab to these new ideas in terms of how image processing could be useful in filmmaking.

“When the first camera phones hit the market in 2001 it was obvious that soon you’d be able to shoot HD video on camera – even though part of you was thinking you couldn’t believe that someone would put a camera in a phone in the first place.

“It hit me that the market for consumer video processing is going to be huge and while people were going to shoot films of differing quality I thought it would be nice if people could take the cinema technology to improve video quality.

“The first low-hanging fruit was image stabilisation – for years this was a key problem for people who shot film and it required tools to resolve.

“So I started Green Parrot Pictures to delve into this space. At that point the lab at Trinity College had matured to the point that I was able to work simultaneously as a founder and a professor. So I found myself in a situation where I was in Ireland trying to rope in former students to join my crazy new company that had no venture capital or anything. In fact I never wanted venture capital, I just wanted to experiment.”

Kokaram grew Green Parrot to five employees by the time Google acquired the company.

A close friend, Robert Swann, who co-founded Alphamosic which created one of the first video processors for mobile phones and which Broadcom acquired, played an instrumental role in helping Green Parrot to get established in the film industry and before Kokaram knew it, he was in the US sitting at a table with Google.

The next scene: quality everywhere

“The video broadcast industry has matured to a point where internet video distribution is a legitimate way for many to watch TV and see movies. Companies like Hulu and Netflix enable people to rent videos over the internet rather than go to a video shop. So now that people are satisfied with video distribution, they are now interested in quality and what they can do with a video on YouTube.

“That’s what we bring to Google – the experience of post-production and broadcast-quality pictures – and enabling Google to improve the quality of video it distributes.

“We are rolling our technology out to different YouTube production sites around the world where artists can go and get help to produce more professional films and use more professional tools.

“There are tools right now on YouTube that let you stabilise your videos and do colour correction.

“Instead of competing with high-end products, we will enable the creation of tools for consumers who don’t necessarily have knowledge of the subtleties of good filmmaking. That said, it is one thing to create a tool for 100 people, it’s quite another to do it for 100m people.”

Now based at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, Kokaram has a bird’s eye view of developments in Silicon Valley, as well as Dublin, where he returns to lecture students.

“I go back occasionally to supervise students at Trinity – Google allows me to do that because I had students who will take two or three years to finish and it would have been unfair to leave them hanging. The advantage of this is I have also managed to get a lot of students from Trinity College to make presentations to Google Research and raise awareness of what’s going on in Ireland.”

Encouraging start-ups is paramount

Kokaram is a strong supporter of Dublin as a digital hub and believes in encouraging start-ups. At the time he started Green Parrot, digital media wasn’t really on the nation’s road map. “But now people recognise digital media as something that can take you places. The technology underlying digital media is quite sophisticated, for start-ups I’m happy to say that there are quite enough problems unsolved that there are plenty of opportunities out there for a technology start-up.

“As to where the best places in the world to be for digital media, because of broadband it doesn’t really matter. That said, I think Dublin suffers from being too close to London where there are plenty of high-end post-production houses.

“Green Parrot was a small company and there’s no reason why somebody can’t make start-ups work from Dublin. There is fantastic work coming out of DIT – Dan Barry’s group there is working on audio processing for video on the web. People are trying and a lot is going on.”

I ask him for his advice to start-ups looking at the world stage. “The only thing you should never do is give up. Also try and get connections with the right people. Find a niche of some kind.

“The acquisition of Green Parrot helped to raise the profile for other companies in Dublin and inspired other companies to do more. One of my post-doc students has just launched a start-up focused on providing post-production tools to the animation industry, for example,” he says.

“So yes, it is possible for Dublin and Ireland to be the home of world-leading tech start-ups. I was there and I saw that it was possible.”

The Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) will be hosting its annual Innovation in Entertainment event on 27 September at Sony Pictures Studios in Hollywood. Executives in attendance represent some of the world’s leading entertainment companies, including HBO, Warner Brothers, Lucasfilm, Sony and DreamWorks.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years