Silver screen wizard

The Maltese software engineer at Dreamworks and Google

Leaving Malta for the UK at the age of two, this technologically inclined individual later took the big step of moving to California, leading him to work with companies such as DreamWorks and Google. Self-confessed technophobe Jane Vella meets Andrew Bonello, in the hope of learning more about the magic formulae that give us the pictures we see at the cinema and the internet software that manages to keep up with the human mind.

Before moving to the land of celluloid and dreams, Andrew worked in the UK for about four years as a software engineer. “At one point I decided to switch to a career in visual effects. And I knew that the best opportunities in that field would be in Southern California,” he says. Andrew admits that leaving his friends and family in England was a big step and felt quite daunting at first.

“When I arrived in Los Angeles, I spent my first month living in corporate apartments. They were the sort of places with a really high turnover,” he explains. “Most of the other residents were wannabe actors and screenwriters, freshly arrived in California from their small hometowns in the mid-Western US. You could hear rehearsals and parties going on right through the night in many of the apartments,” he recalls.

“I remember sitting in my apartment, shortly after arriving. I was watching the then-US president give a press conference on TV. It all felt quite alien, and I recall asking myself: ‘What on Earth am I doing here?’” Luckily, once he started working, Andrew’s initial fears disappeared.

Working with a visual effects studio involved writing software which uses computer graphics to create visual-effects in movies. “At DreamWorks Animation, I wrote compositing software. Compositors combine partial image elements to make a final frame in the movie,” he explains. “For example, a digital matte-painting would form the background. Another image is overlaid on this, containing the actual characters. The top most layer might be an image element with smoke, water or particle-effects.”

“I recall asking myself: ‘What on Earth am I doing here?’”

Andrew adds that it’s important to combine the images correctly. “The transparency needs to be just right so that the characters and background are visible behind the smoke effects. Think of it as ‘image arithmetic’,” he says. “The software knows the mathematical formula needed to add two images together, subtract one image from another, blend two images together, and so on.”

In another job, Andrew wrote image-processing software to restore classic Hollywood movies once they were scanned onto a computer. “Old films contain a lot of dirt and other imperfections. So the tools would digitally clean the film, eliminate flicker, and reduce the graininess.”

Andrew also worked on software for motion-capture. “This is a process you’ve probably seen on TV. An actor wearing a special suit moves around whilst being filmed by a special multi-camera rig. The movements are recorded in 3D on the computer. They are then used to animate digital characters in a movie,” he explains “This makes the characters’ movement more believable in the finished film.”

Andrew admits that seeing the actual finished product at the cinema is very satisfying. “Knowing how much work is involved, and how many people it took to do it is a great feeling. And seeing my name in the credits at the end of the film isn’t a bad bonus, either,” he says, laughing.

I ask Andrew how the opportunity with Google came about. “It was through my interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI). I worked on the help websites that users visit when they encounter problems or have questions about one of Google’s many products,” he explains. “We try to understand user behaviour. This lets us present help articles and recommendations to get them to the information they need as quickly as possible. It’s actually pretty complicated, since the number of users, products and help queries is very large and is, of course, always growing.”

When thinking of AI, most of us think of the walking, talking breathing robots we see in films. I ask Andrew if public opinion is far from the truth. As a science-fiction lover, Andrew admits that he’s dreamt of a world where computers have true ‘artificial intelligence’, where robots could do all those tedious household chores for us, letting us concentrate on the more fun parts of life. Realistically technology is still far from this scenario. “Most real-world examples of AI can be classified as ‘narrow’: they deal with one specific problem,” he explains. “The speech recognition tool in your smartphone is pretty good at recognising spoken words and turning them into text. But it won’t do anything else.”

In truth, technology is still some way from creating a machine versatile enough to be able to deal with more than one action or problem at the same time. “Consider driving a car: while operating a vehicle, your brain is subconsciously processing many pieces of information: the road ahead of you; sounds from other vehicles, the radio. For a computer to make sense of all that in real-time is a mighty feat indeed,” says Andrew.

“seeing my name in the credits at the end of the film isn’t a bad bonus”

Having worked in large and small companies during his career, Andrew has seen the best (and worst) of both. “Big companies have advantages: benefits tend to be better, and there are lots of services in place to make the employees’ lives easier,” he says. “But there are some downsides too. In a large organisation, your efforts get diluted with a lot of other peoples’ work. This can make it harder to really “get ahead” and obtain full recognition for all your achievements. At a smaller company this barrier is almost non-existent. The success or failure of the company is dependent on just a few key individuals,” he explains.

Andrew’s choice in career is time-intensive and very technologyoriented. However, his interests include the violin. “I’ve played the violin at various times in my life since I was about 10 years old,” he says. “Whilst in Los Angeles, I found time to play in a local community orchestra. We rehearsed every week, and gave free concerts about five times a year. It was a lot of work, but ultimately was incredibly rewarding and fun,” he says, smiling. Andrew also admits it was a nice change of scene from the rather intense world of visual-effects.

Having left Malta at a very young age, I wrongly assume that Andrew feels little affinity with our islands. “I’ve visited Malta quite regularly since leaving, despite sometimes having to travel from a great distance,” he says. “I can definitely see myself coming back one day. The lifestyle is hard to beat. And somehow, Malta still feels like home to me.”

Blockbusters featuring Andrew’s wizardry


As Visual Effects Compositing Engineer:
• Monsters Vs Aliens (2009)
• Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)
• Kung Fu Panda (2008)
• Shrek the Third (2007)
• Bee Movie (2007)
• Madagascar (2005)
• X-Men 2 (2003)

Digital Image Processing:
• The Aviator (2004)
• Ray (2004)
• To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)