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Star Wars Software Engineer Teaches Computer Science at Naval Academy

Posted on: April 03, 2013 09:00 EDT by MC2 Alexia Riveracorrea

Hollywood may be a long way from Annapolis, but through the experiences of Cmdr. Kevin Blenkhorn, one of the creators of Yoda in the most recent Star Wars films, midshipmen can get a taste of what happens behind the bright lights.

Blenkhorn (USNA ’91) served 10 years on active duty before pursuing a civilian career in computer graphics with Industrial Light & Magic, the company behind such graphically complex films as Star Wars, Avatar, and Star Trek.  

“I had the privilege of working on episodes one and three of Star Wars,” said Blenkhorn.  “It’s great to work with people who are on the cutting edge of technology. The people who were hired to work on that movie  pushed computer science to the max, further than any other company. It was the peak of my computer graphics career.”

He maintained his status as an active reservist and when the opportunity arose to apply as a faculty member at the academy, he put his application in.

“I’ve always wanted to come back,” he said. “I was lucky to get accepted and return to the Naval Academy.”

Blenkhorn’s work on the CGI Yoda has gotten good reviews. According to film critic Nathan Adams of the website FilmSchoolRejects, “With this new change Lucas has unified the whole look of the prequel trilogy. You can check out the old and busted puppet Yoda in contrast to the new hotness CG Yoda.”

Now a permanent military professor and associate chair of the academy’s Computer Science Department, Blenkhorn shares his civilian experiences with midshipmen on a daily basis.

“Based on my experience at Star Wars, I always tell people that they should ask for what they want,” he said, something he learned from a grad school professor who encouraged his class to apply to Industrial Light & Magic when the company first started working on Star Wars.

“Many of my civilian grad school classmates were saying it was too hard – that you’d apply and you’d never get in,” he said. “I thought, well if everyone else is afraid to apply, maybe there would be some seats open. Sometimes you just have to ask for what you want.”

The job also gave him a new perspective on his field.

“Problem-solving skills are something  I learned from that experience that I still use now,” he said. “When you are working on big pieces of software that are built quickly in order to solve a particular problem, you find there are a lot of bugs on those programs. You spend a lot of times hunting down those bugs.”

 Problem-solving is the most important skill he learned from a career working with computer software, said Blenkhorn.

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