Pixar Pioneers Win the ‘Nobel Prize’ of Computer Science

Pixar Pioneers Win the ‘Nobel Prize’ of Computer Science. Patrick Hanrahan and Ed Catmull are being celebrated for their pioneering achievements in computer animation after securing the win of this years Turing Award. The Turing Award is considered to be the ‘Nobel Prize’ of computer science.

“The ACM A.M. Turing Award is an annual prize given by the Association for Computing Machinery to an individual selected for contributions “of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field”. The Turing Award is generally recognized as the highest distinction in computer science.”

Catmull and Hanrahan were founding members of the team at Pixar and their early work in computer animation has inspired other branches of entertainment including video games, television, technological development, and film across the board for decades and will continue to do so far into the future.


Patrick Harahan, also known as Pat, was the leader in the creation of the software Pixar uses to create its 3D animations called RenderMan. Harahan has worked with many teams and studios throughout his career, including computer animating teams for Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, and Titanic that used RenderMan to created early VFX for the iconic featured films.

“It’s a very labour-intensive process, we still have to do a lot of things manually,” shared Dr. Hanrahan. “If you just want to have a character walk around a world and have a human-like motion that makes you think it’s natural, that’s a huge problem… we have no idea how to do that well.”

Pixar was a magic place,” said Dr. Hanrahan, who is currently staffed at Stanford University.

BBC also shared, “[Pat Harahan] was put in charge of creating a minimum standard for the way computer code is used to describe images. Crucially, Dr. Hanrahan worked out how to visualise how light reflects off different surface. On surfaces such as human skin, some of the light passes through or is absorbed.”

Creating the algorithms and software needed to create realistic renderings of characters, places, and things was no easy task and the lasting impact “Ed and Pat” had on the industry is the chief reason they have been awarded with this high honor.

“Step by step you figure out what kind of lighting should be applied. Then you begin to put in the physics of it, because plastic reflects light one way and metal reflects it in a very different way,” Dr Catmull explains. “[A lack of processing power] definitely was a limiting factor. You had to almost bide your time working on the algorithms for the compute power to catch up with the ideas that we had.”

After completing his doctorate, Ed Catmull went on to become the head of computer division at Lucasfilm, but even though he saw the potential for a fully 3D animated feature length film, others chocked it up to “a pipe dream”. Ed shared, “Most people dismissed the idea as an irrelevant pipe dream.”

That is, until Apple’s Steve Jobs acquired the computer division in 1986 and created a standalone studio he named, Pixar. Initially the studio was developed to sell computer hardware, and when that business direction didn’t pan out Pixar was “reimagined” into a computer imagery based studio.

Despite never being directly involved in the creation of films produced by Pixar, Dr. Catmull credits Steve Jobs with being “The Voice of Pixar” in its early days and got major businesses, such as The Walt Disney Company, interested in the work being done at Pixar Animation Studios. “Publishing was one of the things that helped us attract the best people. Getting the best people was far more important than any single idea and Steve understood that,” says Dr. Catmull.

According to BBC, “This is only the second time the award has been given for advancement in computer graphics.”

Both Catmull and Harahan will split a $1 million prize and receive the traditional Turing Award statue, as pictured above.

The Turing Award official presentation ceremony is currently scheduled for June 2020, but may be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Congratulations to Pat Harahan and Ed Catmull for this major accomplishment! We are HUGE fans of your work. Be sure to check back here at Chip and Co. for all things Disney-Pixar!

Featured Photo Credit: Pixar

Source: BBC

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