Birth: March 31, 1945 in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Education: B.Sc., Physics and Computer Science (University of Utah, 1969); PhD Computer Science, (University of Utah, 1974).
Experience: Boeing (1969); Applicon (1974); New York Institute of Technology (Computer Graphics Lab Director, 1974-1979); Lucasfilm (Vice President of Industrial Light & Magic computer graphics division, 1979-1986); Pixar Animation Studios (Founder and President, 1986-2019); Disney Animation Studios (President, 2006-2019).
Honors and Awards (selected): ACM SIGGRAPH Steven A. Coons Award (1993); ACM Fellow (1995); Academy Scientific and Technical Award (1996, 2001); IEEE John von Neumann Medal (2006); Gordon E. Sawyer Award (2008); Computer History Museum Fellow (2013); ACM A.M. Turing Award (2019).
For fundamental contributions to 3D computer graphics, and the impact of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in filmmaking and other applications.
Edwin Catmull’s pioneering work in the field of computer graphics and animation underpins the film industry as we know it today. Catmull was born Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1945 but moved to Utah when he was six months old. His parents both worked in education, and his early childhood was heavily influenced by the growing postwar culture of science and technology along with the early animation of Walt Disney. In high school Catmull wanted to work as an animator, but realizing that there were no educational paths to a career in animation in the United States at that time, he pivoted to work in physics and computer science, receiving two Bachelor’s of Science degrees in 1969 from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Following graduation Catmull briefly worked at Boeing before returning to Salt Lake City and in 1970 began his PhD in Computer Science at the University of Utah, joining a dynamic computer graphics research program funded in part by the Department of Defense and its Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Working with David Evans and Ivan Sutherland, Catmull tackled critical problems at the leading edge of the emerging field of computer graphics. Catmull recalled in 2013 that his motivation was always, “wherever the frontier is, that's where I want to be.” In 1971, as part of a course in computer graphics taught by Ivan Sutherland, Catmull created and animated a model of his left hand in what is considered one of the earliest examples of 3D shaded computer animation, leading to Catmull’s first academic publication in the Proceedings of the ACM annual conference. A sequence from the resulting film would later be used in the 1976 Richard Heffron film Futureworld, becoming one of the first computer animation sequences used in a feature length motion picture. In 2011 the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
In his time at Utah Catmull made several groundbreaking contributions to computer graphics. In his PhD thesis, he introduced fundamental techniques for displaying curved patches instead of polygons, out of which arose two new concepts: Z-buffering (simultaneously described by Wolfgang Strasser), which manages image depth coordinates to solve the problem of hidden surface visibility in computer graphics; and texture mapping, in which a two-dimensional surface texture is wrapped around a three-dimensional object. He also developed an entirely new kind of surface for modeling, which he would later elaborate on with Utah colleague Jim Clark in what is now known as the Catmull-Clark Subdivision Surface, which is the preeminent surface patch used in animation and special effects.
After defending his PhD in 1974 Catmull worked briefly for the computer aided design firm Applicon before being approached by Dr. Alexander Schure to direct a new computer graphics lab at the New York Institute of Technology, located on Long Island in a converted two-story garage acquired from the former Vanderbilt-Whitney estate. Catmull accepted the position and built a strong team of researchers. Schure’s motivation in funding the lab was to apply computer animation to expedite the production of animated films, beginning with the feature length film Tubby the Tuba (1975). That hope proved premature, but this research into computer aided techniques for 2D animation led to the Tween program, which Catmull developed in 1977 to help automatically produce frames of motion between two key frames. While at NYIT Catmull also made fundamental contributions to anti-aliasing techniques, which reduce the jagged, step-like appearance of lines rendered into pixels. With Alvy Ray Smith he also developed the concept for the Alpha channel, which allowed for pixel transparency and remains essential for compositing and other digital effects still widely used today.
In 1979 Catmull was approached by George Lucas to lead a group bringing computer graphics, video editing, and digital audio into the entertainment field. Catmull accepted, becoming Vice President of the Computer Division at Lucasfilm. The Computer Division worked on several influential films, along with developing digital compositing and audio systems. The graphics team developed the REYES (Render Everything You Ever Saw) rendering software architecture along with Loren Carpenter and Robert L. Cook, which would later be used to produce the influential “genesis effect” sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982), and the stained-glass knight sequence in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), widely considered the first digitally animated character in a feature length film.
Catmull formed at team with Carpenter and Cook with the goal of dramatically increasing the complexity of rendered pictures and making lighting and shading accessible to artists. REYES was a massive leap toward photorealistic rendered images, yet as Catmull noted in a conversation with his fellow Turing Award winner Pat Hanrahan, “We believed that achieving the appearance of reality was a great technical goal—not because we were trying to emulate reality, but because doing it is so hard that it would help drive us forward…. We were trying to match the physics of the real world.” The Graphics Team went on to create special effects for Return of the Jedi (1983) and in 1984 produced an animated short, The Adventures of André & Wally B. with future Pixar collaborator John Lasseter, a technical achievement that helped to drive industry interest in feature length computer animation.
After financial trouble forced Lucasfilm to sell its computer animation division in 1986, Catmull partnered with Alvy Ray Smith to found Pixar Animation Studios with funding from Steve Jobs. Pixar began as a computer hardware company. In 1986 it released the Pixar Image Computer, aimed at high-end visualization applications such as medical imaging, geophysics, and meteorology. Other machines followed, but Pixar eventually shifted its focus to software and animation, which Catmull believed had the potential to revolutionize the film industry. Under Catmull's leadership, Pixar developed the RenderMan proprietary photorealistic 3D rendering software that facilitates communication between 3D modeling and animation applications and the render engine that generates the final high-quality images. Renderman began as an implementation of REYES but evolved into a fully-fledged software suite used across the film industry. At the time the award was made, 44 of the last 47 films nominated for an Academy Award in the Visual Effects category had been made using RenderMan, including Avatar, Titanic, Beauty and the Beast, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Star Wars prequels.
In 1995 more than two decades of research into computer graphics and animation culminated in the release of Toy Story (1995), the first feature length computer animated film. It began a revolution in the film industry that would see the widespread adoption of computer animation and initiated a long string of technically innovative and critically successful Pixar releases. In 2006, Pixar was acquired by Disney and Catmull was named President of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Under Catmull's leadership, both studios continued to produce critically acclaimed and commercially successful films. In his 2014 book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Catmull detailed his experiences at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios and his approach to leadership, which he traces back to his time at the University of Utah. Catmull attributes much of his success to establishing environments in which artists and technologists could collaborate on equal footing with clear goals and transparent communication. Summarizing his leadership philosophy in 2010, Catmull noted that “the fundamental issue is that everybody has the potential to be very creative. And our problem isn’t how do we make somebody be creative. It’s how do we let them be creative?”