Pixar’s Catmull, Hanrahan Honored with ACM’s Turing Award

Computer graphics pioneering researchers Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan were awarded the A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery and are splitting the $1 million prize money. Catmull recruited Hanrahan, a fellow computer graphics researcher, to found Pixar in 1986. Catmull started his work as a grad student at the University of Utah’s graphics lab in 1970 and vowed to create a feature film from computer generated imagery. Catmull and Hanrahan, between them, have received eight Academy Awards.

Wired reports that, according to University of California San Diego professor Ravi Ramamoorthi, “their contributions have led not just to Pixar’s movies, but to the entire industry’s use of computer-generated imagery.” Among the duo’s Academy Awards are those honoring them 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.”

Catmull initially 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.”

With Apple co-founder Steve Jobs providing the capital to acquire Lucasfilm’s computer animation technology, Catmull then hired Hanrahan “to join the founding team of Pixar.” Jobs became chair at Pixar but, said Catmull, “he left the technology up to me and the other people at Pixar.” “And he had no problem at all with us publishing everything we did,” added Catmull who became Pixar president in 2001.

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 … [and] drew on some of the techniques Catmull had invented” during his doctorate studies, “including subdivision surfaces, which represent curved objects by dividing a mesh of polygons into successively smaller pieces.” Hanrahan added shading language among other “major new ideas.”

RenderMan, which Pixar used on ‘Toy Story’ and other movies, was licensed to other companies and has become “a standard tool in Hollywood … used on 44 of the last 47 films nominated for an Academy Award in visual effects.”

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 now advises Alphabet’s X labs “on how to manage and complete audacious technical projects.”

Hanrahan, who left Pixar in 1989, returned to academia, first Princeton and then Stanford, where he is still a professor in the computer graphics lab. In 2003, “he co-founded data analytics company Tableau, which was acquired by Salesforce for approximately $16 billion in 2019.” At Stanford, “his work has included creating code that has helped specialized graphics chips improve the fidelity and power of Hollywood projects, video games, virtual reality, smartphones, and artificial intelligence.”

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