Rahul Thakkar was in the middle of a conversation with a friend at dinner when his phone buzzed. Thinking it might just be another regular phone call, he chose to ignore it. But then he received a message that he could not disregard: “Pick up the phone. You’ve just won an Oscar!”
“It is quite humbling to be recognized by AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) with a technical achievement award,” Thakkar told India-West. “It’s a wonderful feeling to know that the work we did two decades ago was still in use by the film industry. I am honored to be sharing this award with Richard Chuang, a mentor and pioneer in visual effects,” the Indian American technologist added.
“The visual effects and animation industry in India has grown in leaps and bounds. The world has enjoyed Hollywood’s coveted live-action VFX films, and animated features, many of which have been made by animation studios across India by an incredible team of artists and technologists. In the years to come, I look forward to seeing many of their names in the list of Academy Award® winners,” he added.
Thakkar, a Mumbaikar, made his foray into the world of movies at the age of 3 when he starred in a short film on safety. His father, Chandrakant Thakkar, was a renowned artist who appeared in many famous Gujarati and Hindi plays and had guest-starred in the celebrated Richard Attenborough movie “Gandhi” in 1982. Films were an integral part of life for young Rahul growing up.
He was introduced to Hollywood blockbusters like “Terminator 2” and “The Abyss” while still in school, and that’s when he was determined to make his mark in the movie industry. In 1992, he secured funding to complete his graduate degree in computer science at Utah State University. There he met his mentor, Dr. Laurie Egbert, who encouraged Thakkar to pursue his dream by supporting his master’s thesis in animation technology in collaboration with students from the prestigious Ringling College of Art & Design.
Following his graduation in 1994, Thakkar began his career creating visual effects for television commercials in New York, including building software for show openings for David Letterman and the live broadcast of election coverage for CBS in 1994 and 1996. Shortly thereafter, he joined the research and development team of ten at Dreamworks’ Pacific Data Images writing code as a media film color specialist.
It was here that Thakkar and his colleague Richard Chuang developed their Academy Award-winning design for the review workflows and advanced playback features of the DreamWorks Animation Media Review System. Their groundbreaking technology has been used in over 30 Hollywood feature length films including “Antz,” the 2001 Best Animated Feature Academy Award® winner “Shrek,” “Madagascar,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” and “Kung Fu Panda,” as well as live-action films such as “Legend of Bagger Vance,” “Forces of Nature,” Mission Impossible II,” “AI – Artificial Intelligence,” and many more.
“Imagine a YouTube interface that is a million times more powerful so that every animator and film editor can simultaneously review any part of the feature while in production,” Thakkar told India-West. “Within a year of development, everyone had started using our software, especially the production engineering team in PDI. We also showcased it to Spielberg’s team. Some even called it ‘Rahul’s Movie Player’,” he added.
Thakkar was among first Indian Americans who made their mark in Hollywood.
The tragic events of 9/11 had claimed some of his closest friends, which prompted an intensely personal decision of moving to New York to join the ‘War against Terror’.
Thakkar served as technical architect at Pixia Corp. where he worked on satellite imagery. “Picture Google Earth 10 years ago with a 2000 mega pixel camera taking 2-6 images per second of an entire city like San Francisco with an incredibly powerful infrared lens,” he told India-West about his work at Pixia. Thakkar completed 10 years in the defense sector with 26 patents under his belt and grew the company from ground-up to 85 employees.
“My mantra is keep feeling challenged at work every single day,” he said. “When I feel any different, I need to find a new project to keep me motivated.”
Thakkar served as VP of Technology at Madison Square Garden thereafter, and more recently as VP of Technology at Brivio Inc., a leader of cloud-based physical access control systems.
“The surveillance drones that were instrumental in saving ‘Captain Phillips's’ boat from the Somalian pirates and several other marines/special operatives in Afghanistan were powered by the software we developed,” Thakkar told India-West about his recent accomplishments.
Inspired by his mother, in the coming years he plans to help build spacecraft for deep space exploration.
Thakkar currently resides with his wife and family in Virginia. When asked whether he missed living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Rahul quipped: “My family is happy, we have a decent sized house and the kids can go to private school and don’t have to spend a fortune to get all that.”
After a media management company applied for an Oscar nomination in the digital media category that impacts the growth of the film industry, an open nomination was announced in 2014. There were approximately nine products and more than 20 people being considered for the award. The Academy launched a thorough investigation and after two exhaustive interviews and dozens of employee corroboration, the Academy selected Thakkar and Chuang for the prestigious award.
“My neighbors are excited and my wife is excited about my Oscar achievement, but my six-year-old daughter doesn’t understand it quite yet,” Thakkar said. “We’ve got to go shopping now for the event, though I think my wife’s already picked out her Plan B dress,” he quipped.
Thakkar will officially receive his golden statuette from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contribution in the advancement of motion picture standards and technology at the Annual Scientific and Technical Awards presentation to be held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills on Feb. 13, 2016.