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A dinner with Ron Howard, Jeff Bezos and Mark Hamill

It almost sounds like a dream: Matt Wallin, associate professor of communication arts, sits down at a dinner table, surrounded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, filmmaker Ron Howard, actor Mark Hamill and two astronauts. Only the dinner wasn’t a dream. It happened while Wallin was attending Bezos’ annual MARS conference in Palm Springs, California. The event is a meeting of the minds where where luminaries in the fields of machine learning, automation, robotics and space could gather and learn from one another. At MARS, the theoretical and fantastical ideas of science fiction artists were honored as sources of inspiration for the engineers, entrepreneurs and academics shaping the future. Wallin, a visual effects veteran whose fingerprints are all over Hollywood blockbusters like I Am Legend and Watchmen, was himself inspired by the out-of-this-world practical effects in George Lucas’ films.

“You hear all the time about people who are inspired by ‘Star Trek’ and that’s why they would go to NASA,” said Wallin, whose own path was firmly set at age 7. “That’s what got them going. The arts motivated them to do really well in math and science, because they wanted to one day become an astronaut or create the coldest and most sensitive camera in the world. Or become an astronomer and detect exoplanets at great distance. I mean crazy, crazy stuff.”

Wallin himself was inspired by the original “Star Wars,” which came out in 1977. The movie was groundbreaking, he said, in terms of structure, thematic components, imagination and design. The visual effects, stunning at the time, were very analog by today’s standards. They used physical models with some computer-controlled cameras that allowed for motion-control movements. The visual-effects people then optically composited everything.

“And that’s what I always wanted to do since I was a little kid,” Wallin said. “The more I researched it as even a little kid, I was sort of obsessive compulsive about it.”

Trying to hedge his bets as best he could, Wallin strategically chose to attend a university near Lucasfilm — San Francisco State. He parlayed a college internship with George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic into a full-time job, which he held for 10 years.

Read more about Wallin and the MARS conference at VCU News.