USING MOVIE MAGIC FOR SELF-DRIVING CARS

Jennifer McKnew
5 min readDec 21, 2022

Working in the visual effects (VFX) industry enriched my life profoundly. For more than 30 years I worked with some of the most technical and creative minds on more than 40 feature films and television projects. My work required use of cutting edge industry-leading software packages (both commercial and proprietary) for bringing scenes to life. Once I created the cityscapes, backgrounds, animations, or other miscellaneous items, I rendered the elements so that I could integrate them into the live action plate photography using compositing.

One of my most memorable experiences in the world of visual effects was joining the storied and award-winning Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). While there, I worked on iconic films like Saving Private Ryan, the Star Wars prequels, Harry Potter, and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Prior to joining ILM, I worked primarily in television. Whether it was creating UFOs for The X-Files, animating baby alligator creatures for Star Trek Voyager, or showcasing animated instruments for the American Music Awards, each project presented a unique set of challenges. The apex of that work culminated in my becoming a voting member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at 27 years old.

Computer graphics work consists of many steps that can often take weeks to bring a project to completion. Digital elements push the envelope of reality. When a project needs something that cannot be filmed in camera or within time/budget constraints (i.e., watching Toothless and Hiccup fly around the Island of Berk in How to Train Your Dragon) computer graphics can add elements of magic. I’ve also enjoyed working on animated features at Dreamworks Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Film is about connection at a core level. It brings people together for a shared experience through storytelling. It builds compassion and empathy with people who might be very different from us by turning a lens on places and time periods that we might not otherwise ever know. The lessons of our shared history can be retold for new generations and can help us grow as a society. The scale of the work, the global reach and the subject matter was all very exciting!

The camaraderie of working on a film was one of my favorite aspects of working in the industry. I made lifelong friends working in film and am happy to still be in contact with many of them.

IT’S NOT THE DESTINATION, IT’S THE JOURNEY

As fulfilling as working in feature film and television had been, I began exploring self-driving cars aka Autonomous Vehicles (AV). AV Technology is a groundbreaking engineering challenge that aspires to change the world. I wondered if this was another industry that would have the same impact on humanity I’d enjoyed in film.

After 30 years of a successful career, I made the decision to leave feature film and television to join the driverless Autonomous Vehicle revolution at Cruise. As a woman over 50 I made the transition into tech and was happy to find that Cruise is a pioneer among its tech peers, championing inclusivity and equity from the beginning. I knew this was where I wanted to be.

I joined Cruise as a 3D Artist, where I could leverage my VFX experience to bring product experiences to life through visual storytelling. My favorite aspects of working at Cruise include the culture, work life balance, inclusivity, company values, environmental footprint, and ultimately the impact upon human lives. It wasn’t long before I could envision a world in which drunk driving, texting while driving, or fatigue are no longer common dangers on the road.

At Cruise a team member is more than just their core responsibility. Cruisers are encouraged to lean into whatever aspect of the company that intrigues them. To me, that meant patents, which were totally new to me but the motivation to contribute ideas grew as I learned more about the technology. I assumed AV patent submissions required holding a phD at a minimum, making the process unattainable to me. To my surprise, my ideas were not only welcomed, they were good enough to be submitted as applications to the US Patent Office.

WHEN PATENTS ARE PERSONAL

When I was in high school, a family member was struck from behind at an unprotected left turn, pushed into oncoming traffic, and killed. As a young person myself, it was the first time I witnessed a life taken unexpectedly, as well as far too soon. Watching the pain my loved ones endured struck an indelible chord in me.

At Cruise, I have had a chance to do something about it.

I began thinking of solutions to improve safety, prevent injuries and reduce loss of life. I worked with a Cruise engineer to think about how we could have avoided that senseless tragedy. Together, we came up with a way of protecting road users when an AV is taking an unprotected left turn by detecting an impending rear-end collision. Upon detection the AV can automatically implement safety precautions, such as re-adjusting the wheel angle and/or locking the wheels. In this way the AV is prevented from being forced into oncoming traffic.

While working in a 2D/3D Artist role, I continue to be involved in Cruise AV patents outside of my responsibilities (with 10 pending patent applications submitted to the US Patent Office to date). On May 2nd, 2022, l was fortunate to have an additional Patent granted by the US Patent office and listed as the Sole Inventor.

The magic of my time in film led me to another, equally meaningful, and fulfilling career working in Autonomous Vehicles. I believe that AV technology is solving the greatest engineering challenge of our generation. Through visual storytelling, I can illustrate how the technology works so that our future riders can experience it before even stepping into the vehicle.

At Cruise, I have worked with some of the most brilliant minds, helping to save lives and change the world. I am as eager to begin my Cruise work day as I once was in film and can’t wait to see what unfolds with the day ahead. Seeing the imagination come to life pixel by pixel still leaves me speechless.

Jennifer McKnew has worked on more than 40 feature films and television shows as a VFX professional for more than 30 years. Jennifer’s Film and Television credits and her Public Patents can be viewed here.

Official Film and Television credits

Public US Patent Office applications

--

--