Millions of viewers of NBC's Heroes know actor Masi Oka as Hiro Nakamura, the bored young Japanese office worker who discovers he has the power to alter time and teleport. What they probably don't know is that he's been working behind the scenes for years as one of Industrial Light & Magic's top programmers.
In an ensemble cast that features solid acting all around, Oka steals the show every time he's on the screen. The show literally has his Hiro living out the exploits of his own comic book, 9th Wonders.
Since graduating from Brown University in 1997, Oka has worked on more than 30 big-budget Hollywood films at ILM. During that time he has written more than 20 programs and 100 plug-ins for the leading special-effects house. While audiences might not have known his name or face until Heroes, they've seen his programming magic on the big screen in films like The Perfect Storm, Star Wars: Episode II, Terminator 3 and the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
"I've been programming computers since elementary school, where they taught us, and I stuck with computer science through high school and college," said Oka. "ILM offered me an entry-level position at its Marin, California, headquarters, but they refused to fly me out for the job interview. Fortunately, Microsoft also was interested in hiring me and they flew me out to Seattle, then down to San Francisco and back to Providence."
Oka ended up taking the job with ILM and remains with the company to this day, despite his hectic TV production schedule. He said ILM was a great place to start in the industry because he learned a lot about the pipeline and how the company worked.
"It was also a way for upper management to determine how much drive we had," said Oka. "If we wanted to, we could always start our own projects."
After a year and a half of training, which included some work on Star Wars: Episode I and Rocky and Bullwinkle, Oka got his first big "show" with The Perfect Storm. He worked with John Anderson to create the computer-generated water effects for the film. All of the water effects in that film, as well as water effects in more recent films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, were the result of code written by Oka.
"That allowed me to get my name out in the ILM community and people wanted me to do a lot of particle work, fluid stuff and modeling for different shows," said Oka. "I became more of a firefighter, going around from show to show doing short-term work as a hired gun to solve problems on a very quick basis."
A lot of the software Oka wrote became applicable to other shows. For example, the computational fluid dynamics he worked on in Terminator 3, which allowed liquid metal to take shape, handled the drool in Dreamcatcher. His surface-cracking technology from Star Wars: Episode II worked well for Pirates of the Caribbean.
"The key to digital effects is to do things that are visually accurate but done cheaply and approximated," said Oka. "I would simulate viscosity or advection, things that are specific to the way water moves. We'd do a cheap simulated effect for these movements and they were used for things like the spray and wakes in The Perfect Storm."
Oka managed to get his Screen Actors Guild card by performing in a few industrial videos. After working on The Perfect Storm for nearly two full years, Oka moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career in 2001. He appeared in a number of TV shows (Scrubs, Reba, Without a Trace) and films (Along Came Polly, Legally Blonde 2, House of the Dead 2) before Heroes thrust him into the spotlight.
Working remotely from ILM's Los Angeles studio, Oka has remained active with movie effects, although now he's limited to one or two days of ILM work a week because of his production schedule.
"I love both acting and programming equally," said Oka, who enjoys challenging both sides of his brain. "I think it enriches me and enhances me as an artist. I have a lot of appreciation for what people do in front of the camera as well as behind the camera. I don't think I could like one without the other. Eventually, I think the road will lead me down to producing or directing, because it's more about problem solving."
Should Heroes' early success continue for NBC, Oka said he would love to be able to direct an episode in season three or four and bring all of his ILM cronies in to help out.
"I'd make use of my employee discount — buy two effects and get one free," joked Oka.
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