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10 Questions with Edwin Catmull, Super Genius

To introduce the March 2000 Production Technology issue, Edwin Catmull, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Pixar Animation Studios, takes the ten question challenge.

For our issue on production technology, we thought there wouldn't be a better choice than one of the fathers of some of the most widely used production technology to take the ten question test...

Dr. Edwin Catmull.

Edwin E. Catmull has been on the cutting edge of computer graphics since the early beginnings of the industry. As co-founder and Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Pixar Animation Studios, he has led the charge on such crowd pleasing favorites as Toy Story. Prior to joining Pixar, Dr. Catmull entered the film industry as vice president of Lucasfilm, Ltd.'s computer division in 1979. In addition to being a key creator of RenderMan, the Academy Award-winning program that creates realistic digital effects for computer graphics and animation, he also managed Lucasfilm's development efforts in computer graphics, video editing, video games and digital audio. Dr. Catmull has been awarded the Scientific and Technical Engineering Award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and has also won the Coons Award, which is the highest achievement in computer graphics for his lifetime contributions. Dr. Catmull is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Science and Technical Awards Committee. He earned his B.S. degrees in computer science and physics and his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Utah. AWN: What upcoming CGI project has you excited? Edwin Catmull: Monsters, Inc. is really going to surprise people. It is going to have a great story, be funny and look great. AWN: In raising the bar of visual effects, what do you perceive as being the next greatest hurdle to clear? EC: We can already do just about anything. The real problem is that it is too hard. The difficulty of producing effects is sometimes interfering with the process of telling a good story. I expect that improved techniques, faster computers and better tools will keep us on a course of continual better effects, and ultimately lower costs. AWN: If two workstations begin rendering their scenes at the same hour, one in Toronto and one in Los Angeles, each processing at a speed of....uMmm...wait a second, I forgot the question.... AWN: What was the big milestone, what corner did we turn, in making computer animation a viable artform? EC: While we absolutely needed advanced modeling, lighting and animation systems, the single event that let us mix computer animation with live-action film was the discovery of motion blur.

AWN: If you could change or improve anything about the industry, what would it be? EC:

I thought that the concerted raiding of the L.A. studios against each other a couple of years ago caused considerable damage to the economics and culture of our industry.

AWN: There is an expression that, "Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic." Do you know any magicians? EC:

There is another saying: "Talent isn't fair." And when you get talented people to work together something happens that any one of them alone couldn't produce. That is magic. AWN: Why do you love animation? EC: When done well, the voices, story and animation come together in a pure act of creation. AWN: The debate rages: with so many individual frames manipulated in some way, shape or form, is Titanic an animated or live-action film? EC: Even in live-action films, the lighting, sound and stage are not realistic. Are the CG props in Titanic really any different than fake store fronts that we see in Westerns? Feature films are not meant to be realistic, they are at heart artistic creations.

Ed Cutmull's favorite little German caterpillar from A Bug's Life. © Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved.

AWN: Who is your favorite digital character? EC:

For some reason, I really liked Heimlich the caterpillar [from A Bug's Life]. AWN: You are creating an amazing career at the forefront of computer animation. So far what have you accomplished, or were involved with, that you are most proud of? EC: Early on I developed texture mapping, Z-buffers and subdivision surfaces. I was fortunate enough to be associated with four institutions that were willing to take a gamble on computer graphics and animation: University of Utah, New York Institute of Technology, Lucasfilm and Pixar. Along the way I was joined by many of the most talented people in our industry. I think it would have been easy to be so caught up in the technology that we could have forgotten what our real goals were. I am most proud that we have made the transition from researchers to story tellers. Gregory Singer is working towards an M.F.A. in Producing at Chapman University, in Orange, California. He is also the assistant editor of the Animation Journal, a peer-reviewed scholarly publication devoted to animation history and theory. Heather Kenyon is editor in chief of Animation World Magazine.