Pixar Pioneers Win the Computing Industry’s ‘Nobel’ Prize

When Edwin Catmull arrived at the University of Utah’s graphics lab as a grad student in 1970, its state-of-the-art monochrome monitors showed only blocky shapes made from polygons. He spent the next few years inventing mathematical techniques to display curved surfaces, and began to dream of one day creating a full-length movie from computer generated imagery.

“I thought it would take about 10 years but it took about 20,” Catmull recalls. Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature film, was released in 1995 by computer animation studio Pixar, where he was chief technical officer and later president.

Wednesday, Catmull’s pioneering research on graphics earned him the highest honor in computing, the Association for Computer Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award, seen as the field’s equivalent to a Nobel Prize. Catmull shared the award and $1 million prize money with Patrick Hanrahan, a fellow computer graphics researcher he recruited to the founding team of Pixar in 1986. The pair were honored for inventing techniques that transformed Hollywood and have shaped other forms of entertainment such as videogames and virtual reality.

“Their contributions have led not just to Pixar’s movies, but to the entire industry’s use of computer generated imagery,” says Ravi Ramamoorthi, a professor at University of California San Diego whose own graphics research helped animate the aliens in James Cameron’s Avatar and gloss the furry pelts in 2017’s War of the Planet of the Apes. “Today any pixel you see in a movie there’s a good chance it’s been touched up or generated by a computer.”

Catmull and Hanrahan have between them received eight Academy Awards for tools and techniques used in computer animation and special effects on Pixar movies and beyond, including Jurassic Park, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Star Wars prequels. Their careers blended academic computer science research with commercial software development, as they worked with some of the biggest names in technology and entertainment.

After graduating from the University of Utah, Catmull set up a computer graphics lab at New York Institute of Technology but headed to California in 1979 when George Lucas asked him to work on computer graphics and other digital movie-making technology at LucasFilm. Catmull in turn hired Hanrahan to join the founding team of Pixar. The company was created with help from Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, who provided the capital to buy out LucasFilm’s computer animation technology and became Pixar’s chairman.

Although famously controlling and secretive at Apple, Jobs took a different approach at Pixar. He would drop by Hanrahan’s office to keep up with the latest technical advancements, but didn’t seek to steer them. “He left the technology up to me and the other people at Pixar,” says Catmull, who started as Pixar’s chief technical officer and became president in 2001. “And he had no problem at all with us publishing everything we did.”

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At Pixar, Hanrahan led work on a software specification and language called RenderMan, which made it much more practical to generate curved shapes with a realistic appearance and lighting. It drew on some of the techniques Catmull had invented during his PhD, including subdivision surfaces, which represent curved objects by dividing a mesh of polygons into successively smaller pieces. Hanrahan helped add major new ideas such as a shading language, which made it easier to specify and alter the shape and appearance of computer-generated objects.

Pixar deployed RenderMan on Toy Story and its other movies and also licensed it to other companies. The software is now a standard tool in Hollywood and was used on 44 of the last 47 films nominated for an Academy Award in visual effects. Over time it has helped computer generated movies mature from simulating relatively simple objects such as plastic toys to more complex physical phenomena like rippling fur or splashing water.

Catmull remained president of Pixar after it was acquired by Disney for $7 billion in 2006 and also led the company’s animation division until retiring last year. He is advising Alphabet’s X labs, formerly known as Google X, on how to manage and complete audacious technical projects.

Hanrahan left Pixar in 1989 and returned to academia at Princeton, before later joining Stanford. In 2003 he cofounded data analytics company Tableau, which was acquired by Salesforce for approximately $16 billion in 2019. Today he is a professor in Stanford’s computer graphics lab, where his work has included creating code that has helped specialized graphics chips improve the fidelity and power of Hollywood projects, videogames, virtual reality, smartphones, and artificial intelligence.

Hanrahan says attending the Toy Story premiere in 1995 helped him understand the impact such behind-the-scenes math and computer science work can have on the world. “I knew working on films was technically interesting and challenging but it was amazing to see the smiles on the kids faces,” he recalls. “One reason I’m still really excited about graphics is that it brings out the creative aspect of people.”


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