Pixar pioneers behind Toy Story animation win ‘Nobel Prize’ of computing
In the opening scene of Toy Story, released in 1995, a group of boxes are scattered in a child’s bedroom. The sun penetrates the room as a Mr Potato Head doll demands money from an apparently hit plastic cast and plush toys outside a cardboard bank.
In the picture comes the hero – a cowboy sheriff made of plastic and fabric with a rope to make him talk. The sheriff casts a shadow over the evil potato that escapes from the law.
It is a scene taken from a child’s imagination. It was also the culmination of decades of development in computer animation.
This year, two of the men behind these advances, Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan, received the Turing award. The award recognizes “lasting and important” contributions in the field of computer science and is considered the “Nobel Prize” for computer science.
The prize is awarded by the Association for Computing Machinery and a cash prize of $ 1 million (£ 800,000) is distributed among the winners.
Dr. Catmull was one of the founders of Pixar, the studio behind Toy Story. Dr. Hanrahan was one of Pixar’s first employees.
The couple were informed of their victory in early March.
It gave the two old friends and former colleagues enough time to meet for a celebratory meal before the coronavirus blockade measures were put in place in California, where they both live.
“The digital revolution we’ve seen in all types of movies, television, games – probably no one has made a difference anymore compared to Ed and Pat,” says David Price, author of the book The Pixar Touch.
To make Toy Story and other computer animated films possible, dr. Catmull, dr. Hanrahan and their teams had to develop ways to make computers display three-dimensional objects.
During his postdoctoral studies, Dr. Catmull created a way to make the computer recognize a curved surface. Once the developers had a mathematically defined curved surface, they could start adding more functionality to it, such as texture and depth.
“Step by step find out what kind of lighting should be applied. So you start putting physics into it, because plastic reflects light in one way and metal reflects it in a very different way,” explains Dr. Catmull.
Dr. Catmull had always had an interest in animation and cinema.
After earning his doctorate and working in a graphics lab in New York, he eventually became head of the computer division of Lucasfilm, founded by George Lucas. The creator of Star Wars and Jurassic Park saw the potential of computer animation in the movies.
But Dr. Catmull says his dream of making a computer animated feature film was still seen as “wildly impractical”.
“Most people rejected the idea as an irrelevant dream.”
Pixar was born
In 1986, Apple founder Steve Jobs arrived. He bought the computer division of Lucasfilm and transformed it into an independent company, Pixar.
Initially, the company tried to sell computer hardware. When it failed to take off, Pixar focused again on the computer images.
Dr. Hanrahan was one of the company’s first employees. He was commissioned to create a minimum standard for the way computer code is used to describe images.
“Pixar was a magical place,” says Dr. Hanrahan, who now teaches at Stanford University.
He supervised the creation of RenderMan, the software that Pixar uses to create its 3D animations, working with teams from all over the sector.
Shading and light
Basically, Dr. Hanrahan discovered how to visualize how light reflects on different surfaces. On surfaces such as human skin, part of the light passes through or is absorbed.
Getting this level of light and shadow the right way gives images a more realistic look.
RenderMan was used to create animated films including Toy Story and Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. It was also essential for visual effects in live-action films including Terminator 2, Titanic and Jurassic Park.
Developments in computer animation have driven the video game industry as well as advances in virtual and augmented reality. And its progress has been closely related to advances in machine learning.
Waiting for the computers to reach
According to Dr. Catmull, sharing work across the industry and with other sectors has made it possible to make great progress, particularly processing power.
Computers from the 80s and 90s today only had a small portion of the processing power of laptops and smartphones.
“[A lack of processing power] it was certainly a limiting factor, “explains Dr. Catmull.
“You almost had to spend time working on the algorithms so that the computing power could catch up with the ideas we had.”
But even today, computer animated films rely on small armies of animators.
“It’s a very laborious process, we still have to do many things manually,” says Dr. Hanrahan.
“If you just want to have a character around a world and have a human movement that makes you think it’s natural, that’s a big deal … we have no idea how to do it right.”
Robotics developments have contributed to improvement in this sector, demonstrating how fundamental it is to share learning between sectors.
Although Steve Jobs was known as a very reserved leader in Apple, Dr Catmull says that at Pixar he was much more open and understood the need to share innovations.
“Publishing was one of the things that helped us attract the best people. Getting the best people was much more important than any single idea and Steve understood it,” says Dr. Catmull.
Creations that last
Jobs was also an essential external voice for Pixar’s films. He didn’t work on them, but he would come in to give his opinion. One of the memorable things he told the Pixar team was that while computers were thrown away every few years, the films they were making would last for generations.
This is only the second time that the computer graphics advancement award is given.
The official award ceremony for the Turing Prize is scheduled for June 2020.
The outbreak of the coronavirus could have meant that few people noticed it when the announcement was made by dr. Catmull and dr. Hanrahan.
But with millions of people around the world locked up in their homes, it is certain that many have seen films made possible by these men.