JPL's Kuramura, a contract employee, hardly imagined his skills would be used on actual space work. A self-taught computer wizard, he grew up in Torrance with a passion for video games and science fiction. Heavyset and genial, he sports a boyish grin and is given to wearing T-shirts and jeans.
He keeps an assortment of "Star Trek" models and figures at his Burbank house that would be the envy of a middle school kid. On his desk is a model of a Cylon robot from the TV series "Battlestar Galactica."
Kuramura began his career at a video game company, later working on visual effects for "Star Trek: Enterprise" and other television shows and movies.
When that work ended, he launched his own side business with a partner. Forrec Group creates short animated movies that reenact traffic accidents and crime scenes for jurors, charging $250 to $1,000 per second of film. One project involved animating an attempted murder. Another showed a driver plunging into a ravine.
"I'm booked up until next year," Kuramura said.
His day job is now at JPL, which Caltech runs for NASA. In the 1970s, JPL's Jim Blinn pioneered simulations of the spacecraft Voyager, making him a hero in the visual effects world.
"It used to be the innovations were being done at Caltech and JPL and eventually trickling down to Hollywood," said Zareh Gorjian, JPL lead animator. "Now Hollywood is more of a driver of innovations in animation and we're the beneficiaries."
Gorjian first met Kuramura several years ago, when he needed help replicating the crinkles in the gold foil for the Odyssey spacecraft. He recruited Kuramura last year.
"I went from science fiction to real science," Kuramura said
With two or three missions a year, JPL now has ten animators. The missions require short films to help sell them to Congress and show the public what will be accomplished.
JPL's animators use images and data transmitted from spacecraft to create short films of Martian terrain or the gaseous rings of Saturn. "They're helping us visualize these other worlds that we haven't visited yet," said Eric De Jong, principal investigator with JPL.
When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter returned images of a giant crater, Kuramura and his colleagues made a short film giving a bird's-eye view of its striking gullies, possibly created by past water flows.
"In sci-fi, whatever looked good, we did," he said. "Here, you can't fudge real science."