How do you interview someone who crushed her SATs in seventh grade, was the first woman to work in software research and development for a legendary movie-magic factory, and holds not one, but two, world skydiving records? I asked technology bad-ass Ari Rapkin Blenkhorn to tell me her story. It also includes coding in a language named for Monty Python, coaching an actress playing Rapunzel in a university production of the musical Into the Woods on how to wrangle knee-length wig hair, and making pirates walk underwater, as they do.
Blenkhorn’s mentor was Randy Pausch, a visionary Carnegie Mellon professor who believed artists and technologists should work together to tell stories. Shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2008, Pausch delivered a lecture called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” which quickly went viral. It could also serve as a reflection of Blenkhorn’s attitude toward living and life.
Based in Annapolis, MD, Blenkhorn lives with her husband and two children; she is pursuing a Ph.D. in computer graphics. When she speaks, she does so briskly yet thoughtfully. Her voice warms as she recalls beloved projects, past and present: being a software engineer on the film Jurassic Park 3 holds as a special place in her heart but as does a college production of Little Shop of Horrors. More than once she describes her work as problem-solving or clearing a path so “artists can get out there and tell their stories.” She herself is a fine storyteller and teacher, always careful to make sure that I follow her.
All personal stories and sagas have tests; Blenkhorn’s childhood and adolescence had many. She says her speech pathologist mother often put her children through the same cognitive tests given to patients, making them “probably some of the most documented kids in the world.” Her invitation to take the SATs so early led her to The Center for Talented Youth, a gifted student program at Johns Hopkins whose alumni include founders of Facebook and Google. There, Blenkhorn took advanced courses in paleobiology, precalculus and problem-solving strategies. She affirms that her experience as a young woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning have informed the rest of her life.
At the same time, Blenkhorn also became a self-described theater nerd — always backstage, always helping the show to come to life through lights, sound, set: “Pretty much everything except being onstage,” she admits. And her double path — science-heavy, drama-rich — never ended. Her love affair with theater continued at Johns Hopkins, for even as she majored in math and physics, she became an integral part of an amateur student theater group. It was a highly informal group, unattached to a drama school or even a faculty advisor. It was “students kind of winging it,” she recalls, but it attracted students from every discipline to a lecture hall with a tiny backstage and a “kind of improv” atmosphere that somehow produced as many as 10 shows a year.
Post-undergrad, her interest in STEM scholarship continued unabated. First, she applied to the University of Virginia to work in educational psychology. This was before the World Wide Web, before laptops and digital devices were everywhere. Seeing that the university’s education department lacked resources, she switched to computer science — which is where she met Pausch, an instinctive helper and adventurous researcher. Her evolving academic profile led her next to Carnegie Mellon, and Pausch followed about a year later. Their timing only got better because CMU was then creating its Entertainment Technology Center, which brought together artists and computer scientists to create virtual worlds. Pausch was “the kind of person who wants to expand his circle,” Blenkhorn remembers, his attitude permeating the campus. A creation of technological storytellers emerged — along with a pipeline of students stretching from Pittsburgh to Hollywood.
This same pipeline brought Blenkhorn to Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the visual effects company founded in 1975 by George Lucas, then moving into production with the original Star Wars. She arrived in 1998, when ILM geared up to produce the Star Wars prequels and as they adopted a fascinating new programming language called Python (as in Monty). It was, she says, “a digital extension of working backstage in student theater,” and she found a camaraderie because so many Pausch students were among her colleagues. Blenkhorn’s speciality at the time was physics simulation software that produced fire, water and smoke. Before she left in 2006, she had developed software for physical parts of characters that “flapped or jiggled” when they moved.
Equally notable, Blenkhorn’s software was both sophisticated and versatile enough to be used on more than one film. The code powering the fluttering of Harry Potter’s quidditch robe is the same code that allows clothes in Pirates of the Caribbean to float under water, or adds a ripple to Yoda’s sleeve, or ensures that the Hulk’s pants never rip in an unseemly manner, or makes the flesh tearing of the werewolves in Van Helsing look convincing. The ILM team, she recalls, went to each film together; whether they were artists or developers, whether the film was a blockbuster or a bust, they cheered each other’s work — and one fellow developer became her husband. (Blenkhorn also had time on screen: In The Phantom Menace, she can be seen at the very end as an uncredited crowd extra, cheering for the big parade on Naboo in different hairstyles and costumes.)
Away from ILM, Blenkhorn’s made other kinds of magic. To date, she has successfully made about 1,300 sky dives, mostly in California — including two with Jump for the Cause, an all-woman event created by Mallory Lewis, daughter of the late puppeteer Shari Lewis, that raises funds for breast cancer research. Those two jumps achieved world records for the largest number of women skydiving simultaneously.
Blenkhorn and her husband returned to the East Coast in 2006, and started a family. They have two “geeklings” — Marc, 9, and Dottie, 11. She has worked as a software engineer and taught calculus at the US Naval Academy. She also co-founded Two Lights Technologies, a robotics and unmanned-systems consulting firm. For another firm, she helped to develop custom multi-touch applications for the world’s biggest touchscreens. Inspired by skydiving, Blenkhorn’s doctoral research is recreating, using technology, the visual experience of jumping through sunlit clouds. The equations that describe the color patterns have been known for over 100 years, she explains, but it’s only recently that advances in computing make it possible to run them quickly.
Blenkhorn, in short, is a trail-blazer as a woman at the intersection of arts and technology. She claims that mantle with pride, but it feels like she might be somewhat weary of it, too. There are still too few women in her field. Women, she points out, drop out of computer science programs at an alarming rate; a chronic lack of women role models in the field mean that younger women lack mentors. “I have learned to claim the spotlight and use that attention and try to turn it to good purposes, but it’s exhausting,” she says. “It is a price that the men around me don’t pay — and aren’t aware I’m paying.” Then again, when Blenkhorn gets tired of fighting for herself, she thinks of her children — especially Dottie, a builder of future worlds. Like the heroes of the stories that Blenkhorn has helped to tell, she takes another dive and fights gamely on.