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Ed Catmull Speaks At SIGGRAPH 2008

When Ed Catmull takes the podium to deliver a keynote speech at SIGGRAPH 2008, he'll be introduced as President of Walt Disney Animation as well as President and Co-founder of Pixar. But for three decades Catmull has been a SIGGRAPH star, with a track record that precedes his current lofty titles. He's a genuine innovator to the SIGGRAPH digerati -- one of the original architects of Pixar's RenderMan system; a software pioneer who's made key contributions to fundamental CG concepts like z-buffer and sub-division surfaces.

Yet in his SIGGRAPH address, Catmull has chosen to focus not on technical achievements -- a favored topic at this annual convention of CG brainiacs. Instead, he's emphasizing collaboration, titling his remarks: "Managing the Creative Environment."

He's handled such "management" challenges more than once. In addition to Pixar, Catmull founded the influential CG research center at the New York Institute of Technology in the 1970's -- a facility that produced the seminal CG piece, THE WORKS. Then in the 1980's, when George Lucas asked Catmull to built a computer graphics division at Lucasfilm, he responded by assembling the team that ultimately developed RenderMan, as well as hiring animator John Lasseter.

"John was called an 'interface designer'," said Catmull with a chuckle, who had to give Lasseter that title in order to sneak him into Lucasfilm at a time when there was no budget for animators. But the example goes right to the heart of what Catmull is stressing in his SIGGRAPH remarks. He's found that it's vital to hire -- as he puts it simply -- "People who know things that you don't know." When he first did this at NYIT, he admited, "The truth is that I wasn't secure. When I realized that I had hired someone who could replace me -- that this person was smarter than I was -- I remember being scared. But I did it anyway. And the result was so good it actually made me secure."

Catmull contends that fostering intellectual openness is essential to the success of any creative venture. "Over the years of running R&D groups and building Pixar, we have tried a number of things and we've made a number of mistakes, and from those mistakes we have learned some lessons." So his SIGGRAPH address will focus on, "The things that have gone wrong. I'm going to talk about times when we went off the rails, and what we had to do to respond to that."

Which is not to say that Catmull believes he has a formula that he can recommend to his listeners. "The reason is that whenever you put any system in place, people figure it out and start to 'work' it. Human systems are inherently unstable. If you don't pay attention, they slowly fall over. People notice 'the collapse,' but if you look at companies that have learned from experiences of failing, you see that they draw the right conclusions from failure and go back and do it right." Despite Pixar's nine-for-nine batting average at the box office, he warns, "You can never coast. It's actually when you're successful that you're at great risk. That's why it doesn't get easier -- because if you're successful, things can go unstable."

If there's a signature word that Catmull uses when he considers the success of a creative venture like Pixar, that word is 'community.' In his remarks, he said, "I'll try give examples of the way we think about maintaining a community. I probably will not go after why there aren't such strong communities in the rest of Hollywood. There should be, and people know there should be, but there are probably some structural things that prevent it from happening. People clearly have the talent and the desire to do it, but the amount of collaboration doesn't happen at the level it ought to."

Participating at SIGGRAPH also reinforces Catmull's beliefs, he said, "Because I think of SIGGRAPH as my home community. The last couple of years I had to be in different cities at the time of SIGGRAPH, so I've had to pull away. Now this time I can go back and reconnect with people I've worked with my entire career."

But Catmull isn't about to predict what may be coming next for the community of CG devotees flocking to SIGGRAPH. "The big ideas are fundamentally unpredictable. If I'd been able to predict them I would have done them! We never have things figured out entirely. The one thing about this field -- and about filmmaking -- is that things don't stay the same. I think people sometimes lose sight of that. When something wonderful happens they hope that it doesn't change, without fully recognizing that what made it exciting was that it was a period of change. What makes these films challenging is that we don't repeat ourselves, and we're not supposed to repeat ourselves. The way we keep things exciting is that we never stop to hang onto what we've got. We move on to the next thing."

Among the "next things" coming for Pixar is RATATOUILLE director Brad Bird's live action and visual effects film 1906, which is slated for a 2009 release by Warner Bros. and has a financial investment from Pixar.

Meanwhile, WALL-E writer/director Andrew Stanton is scripting JOHN CARTER OF MARS, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs tale. These developments will undoubtedly be in the minds of many as they listen to Catmull speak at SIGGRAPH, and they'll wonder if Pixar will diversify beyond computer-animated features in the years ahead.

Catmull responds by saying, "In truth, it's too early to tell. We've got two projects coming where there's a live action element. But our view is not that we're trying to diversify; it's more that we've got a creative vision to try something different, and we want to support that vision. Whether or not it goes beyond that we don't know, but we don't want to turn Pixar into a live action studio. In fact, the intent is that the special effects will not be done at Pixar. And the reason, to be perfectly candid, is that the special effects studios out there are really good and very efficient. We do animated features, but what they do with effects is a very different thing. We are not trying to become a special effects company."

Fittingly, when Catmull takes the stage at SIGGRAPH, some in the audience will likely see a subtle connection between his history and the conference's logo projected on giant screens -- a logo that features a complex human character with a teapot floating between her hands. The iconic "CG teapot" is emblematic of the early computer graphics created at the University of Utah, where Catmull got his PhD.

He laughs when he recalls, "The first teapot was by Martin Newell and it was tall. But then somebody copied it and there was a scaling error that made it half the size." As if to reinforce his point about what can happen with unanticipated errors, he says, "It's the funniest thing. The teapot that became an icon was the result of a mistake."

Catmull is speaking at SIGGRAPH today, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. in Hall B.

--By AWN Contributor Ellen Wolff