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Oren Jacob turns teenage dreams
into reality at Pixar

By Bonnie Azab Powell

Oren Jacob, B.S. ME '92, M.S. ME '95. Photo: Bart Nagel

Spike and Mike’s Sick & Twisted Animation Festival changed Berkeley alum Oren Jacob’s life. In 1987, the Irvine, California, 16-year-old was so impressed by the festival’s computer-generated film Luxo, Jr. that he walked out with two goals: to work for Pixar Animation Studios (Luxo Jr.’s creators) and enroll at UC Berkeley.

He succeeded on both counts. As a College of Engineering freshman at Berkeley two years later, he saw Tin Toy, another Pixar short film. Afterward he noticed a computer graphics internship advertised on campus using the Tin Toy character. He applied and got one of the four spots.

At the end of the $6-per-hour internship, he hung around Pixar for free, picking up skills in the burgeoning field of computer animation. Cramming his classes into two or three days per week so he could work full time, he studied while renderings were finishing and wore a beeper at school in case Pixar clients showed up.

"I wanted a job at Pixar more than anything, but I also didn’t want to bail out of school," he says. "There were sacrifices," and consolations, including ample spending money and awards: animated commercials that his team made for Listerine, Levi’s, and Hallmark were recognized worldwide. His first four years of double duty apparently didn’t faze him; after graduating, Jacob promptly got a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Berkeley. Once out of school, Jacob contributed significant lighting and special effects work for Toy Story’s climactic chase sequence and helped put together the opening shot of A Bug’s Life.

His engineering background proved useful on Finding Nemo, the Pixar release slated for next summer. He’s Nemo’s technical director, charged with realizing the director’s artistic vision within production constraints. "We’re working on fully 3-D water simulation. You can’t just look at a textbook and find equations that completely define how splashing water moves and looks, because they don’t exist," he says. "I’m glad to have the vocabulary to discuss fluid dynamics with the specialists we’ve hired to write simulators for us."

After 12 years at Pixar, Jacob’s enthusiasm has never cooled. "This place is regularly humbling, with the number of people who are just off-the-scale brilliant in every possible discipline," he says.

FOREFRONT reports on activities in the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. It features developments of interest to the engineering and scientific communities and to alumni and friends of the College.

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