University of Utah alum Ed Catmull has taken a path that melds science and artistic endeavor.
In the 1950s, young Ed Catmull loved Walt Disney animated films such as Pinocchio and Peter Pan. He dreamed of becoming an animator, and he filled up sketchbooks and created his own flipbooks. At Salt Lake City’s Granite High School in the 1960s, he took every art class he could. His heroes were Disney and Albert Einstein. “Animation and physics fascinated me,” he now says.
By the time Catmull enrolled at the University of Utah, though, he realized he couldn’t draw well enough to make a living as a professional animator, and the pathway to that career wasn’t apparent. “There was no school for animation. There was no entryway into that field, and I had no idea how to get there,” he says. “Because I couldn’t figure out how to do that, I switched to physics.”
But his path through science and technology soon led him back to his early ambitions. At the U, he learned he could combine his interests in art and computer science. He realized during his studies that he wanted to make computer-animated films, and his computer graphics discoveries enabled him to chart that course.
Forty years later, he’s now regarded as a pioneer in computer animation. He has won five Academy Awards, including a 2009 Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for his lifetime contributions to computer graphics used in the motion picture industry. And he’s president of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.
“I’ve thought a lot about creativity,” he says from his office in Burbank, California. “I think of it as problem-solving and expression. …Some people only use what they’ve learned. But there’s a certain amount of things you know, and then there’s stuff that’s brand new and mysterious because it doesn’t exist yet. The proper balance is how to rely on things you know and still be willing to learn the things you don’t know.”
Catmull BS’69 PhD’74 was born in Parkersburg, West Virginia, while his father was a Marine deployed in World War II’s Pacific theater. When Ed was 2 years old, with the war over and his father safely returned, the family moved to Salt Lake City, where Ed and his four siblings grew up. His father became a math teacher at Granite High School, then principal of the brand-new Taylorsville High School. His mother was a secretary in the school district.
In his last year of undergraduate work at the U, Catmull realized that his bachelor’s degree in physics would leave him still a beginner in that field. So he took a look at the U’s fledgling Department of Computer Science. “Here was an area just open with possibilities,” he says. He enrolled in the program and graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, just four years after completing high school.
Catmull then worked briefly for Boeing in Seattle. But when an economic crisis forced Boeing to lay off thousands of employees, Catmull returned to the University of Utah for graduate school. “The first course I took was the brand-new course they offered in computer graphics,” he says. “We’re in computer science, at the frontier, and I got to make pictures with the potential for making art. That was it. Now my direction was set.”
The U’s Computer Science Department in the late 1960s and early 1970s was under the direction of David Evans BA’49 PhD’53, a computer scientist hired in 1965 to start the department within the College of Engineering. Funded by significant grants from the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), for open-ended research, Evans and his colleague Ivan Sutherland recruited bright graduate students who they thought would work well together, including Catmull.
That environment helped shape Catmull’s ideas about nurturing the creative process, throughout the rest of his career. “Most people like to think in terms of structure. The way [the U] developed computer science was more unstructured,” he says. “Make a safe environment for people to create. That’s what the program at the University of Utah was: a safe place to make failures. It changed everything. For me, this was the right way to think about things.”
As one of his class assignments, Catmull tackled a short piece of digital animation. “In that class, they had some canned software that people used to make pictures,” he says. “Three of us decided not to use the canned software. Those three of us are the ones still in the industry today.” By choosing to develop his own ideas rather than use the paint-by-numbers software, he says, “I was trying to prove it was possible to do animation.”
The result of his endeavor was a minute-long, three-dimensional animation of his left hand moving, recognized today as the first digitally animated film. In 1976, his animated hand even landed a bit part in a science-fiction feature film, Futureworld. Catmull’s film, known simply as A Computer Animated Hand, was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011, as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant film. Through that film, Catmull proved computers could be used to create at least rudimentary animation. “What it meant for me was I had a new goal in life: to produce an animated film,” he says.
With his new doctorate from the U in hand, he joined the New York Institute of Technology as director of its Computer Graphics Lab, assembling a team to develop tools for 2-D and then 3-D animation. After five years, Catmull’s reputation hit George Lucas’s radar. “George Lucas had just made Star Wars,” Catmull says. The effects in Star Wars were the best that had ever been done, but Lucas wasn’t using any computer animation yet. He was still using film, cel animation, and modeling, although he was using computers to control the models. Lucas was interested in investing even more in movie-making technology. “The rest of the industry was averse to technology,” Catmull recollects. “George was the only one willing to invest.”
Lucas brought Catmull onboard in 1979 as vice president of Lucasfilm’s computer graphics division. According to Catmull, Lucas hired him “to bring higher technology to the film industry: computer graphics, computer audio, and digital editing.” Catmull and his team did just that, pushing the digital frontier forward once more by developing numerous technologies and tools, including digital image compositing technology that combines multiple images in a realistic and convincing way. It was here that Catmull and his team also developed the precursor to RenderMan, the groundbreaking software and application programming interface that for the first time made it possible to produce realistic-looking complex 3-D images.
In 1986, Lucasfilm spun off the digital division as its own corporation, co-founded by Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, and funded by Steve Jobs. Catmull became the chief technical officer of the new company, now called Pixar. “For the first time,” Catmull says of the transition, “it wasn’t just running a research group; it was trying to run a company. It meant not just learning about the technology, but learning how you keep people engaged, and how you handle issues with managing people.”
Catmull turned his creative energy to making Pixar successful as a business. After producing several commercials and establishing RenderMan as the industry standard for 3-D imaging, Pixar made Catmull’s lifelong dream a reality in 1995 by releasing Toy Story, the first digitally animated feature film. One week after Toy Story was released, Pixar went public with the biggest IPO of the year. “It was a dramatic change,” he says. “But for me, I felt a little lost. I’d just achieved my goal. I didn’t want to go into coasting mode after that.”
He watched friends in Silicon Valley as their companies rose and fell. “I’d see some of those companies doing amazingly stupid things,” he says. “It was intriguing. What in the world was going on? They were coming together as creative endeavors with smart people, but then they’d fall apart. It was very stimulating to figure out what was going on.” Catmull realized Pixar could suffer the same fate if he didn’t learn how to keep it successful.
His solution was to try to build a sustainable, creative culture at Pixar. “The way you make things happen is you attract smart people and make it safe for them to create,” he says, explaining one of his business fundamentals. “If you hire people smarter than you are, it makes you smarter. …It changes the level of everything.” He also believed that making RenderMan an open development interface was important. “Many companies say, ‘I want to keep everything secret so we have a proprietary advantage.’ I didn’t do that. We freely published everything and gave out a lot of our secrets. The reason is that secrets aren’t that important. What is important is the people working on it.”
Even the Pixar building and surrounding grounds were designed to foster creativity, innovation, and collaboration. The heart of the modern, airy glass and steel building is a spectacular atrium designed to prompt unplanned encounters and collaborations. Instead of typical cubicles, animators have small “houses” that they can decorate however they wish—from a cowboy saloon complete with swinging doors to a candy pink hideaway with doll limbs poking out of a flowerbox. Employees can relax with foosball and other games, a café (which features vegetables from the on-site organic garden), video games, a fitness center, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, sports fields and courts, a jogging trail, two 40-seat viewing rooms, and, of course, a large theater.
When Disney acquired Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, Catmull became president of both Disney Animation Studios and Pixar. He and his colleague John Lasseter were tasked with reenergizing the Disney Animation Studios. “I took my ideas and theories and had to apply them to an entirely new group of people, none of whom I knew,” Catmull says. It was a daunting prospect, but for seven years now, it’s been working. Both studios are now successful entities, each with what he calls their own personality and different ways of working.
“Creation by definition means you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get, and you have to be okay with that,” says Catmull. “Trust that the people there are trying to do the right thing. That’s always been true for me. If you have a lot of people who are well-intentioned, unleash them. Get their collective brainpower working.”
That collective brainpower at Pixar has produced 13 digitally animated feature films to date, all of them commercially successful. The studio has received 29 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes honors, and 11 Grammy awards. True to his roots, Catmull has remained involved in the University of Utah, as a member and past chair of the U’s Engineering National Advisory Council. He gave the University’s commencement address in 2012. “We are so accustomed to assigning patterns, and we attribute our success to our genius rather than to randomness,” he told the graduates. “We should plan for the unforeseen, not prevent it. Rather than being scary, this is where the fun stuff happens.”
Catmull still has family in Utah, including his 91-year-old father and some of his siblings, so he makes it back to visit about twice a year. The rest of the time he splits between his California offices with Disney in Burbank and Pixar in the Bay Area, and his home in Hawaii, where he lives with this wife, Susan, and the youngest of their five children, as well as a rescued Maltese dog that his wife surprised him with last fall. He also manages to find time to enjoy his first grandchild.
Catmull continues to champion his ideas of constant change, innovation, and excellence with both Pixar and Disney, directing his employees to continue to seek both the frontiers and the balance of entertainment and technology. “I have never been good at predicting the future,” he says. “I just see the possibilities and push in that direction.”
— Kelley J. P. Lindberg BS’84 is a freelance writer based in Layton, Utah, and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
This student film by Ed Catmull, A Computer Animated Hand, is recognized today as the first digitally animated film: