A computer graphics pair whose breakthroughs enabled movies like “Toy Story” and other digital effects, won this year’s Turing Award, the tech world’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
Edwin Catmull and Patrick Hanrahan, whose 3D graphics revolutionized movies and video games, will share $1 million in prize money for their award, which is named for British scientists Alan Turing – widely credited as the father of modern computer science and artificial intelligence.
“Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan have fundamentally influenced the field of computer graphics through conceptual innovation and contributions to both software and hardware,” wrote the award’s team. “Their work has had a revolutionary impact on filmmaking, leading to a new genre of entirely computer-animated feature films beginning 25 years ago with Toy Story and continuing to the present day.”
Catmull began as an employee of filmmaker George Lucas, who hired him to head animation studio Pixar when Apple’s Steve Jobs bought it in 1986. Hanrahan was one of Catmull’s early hires at the firm.
Hanrahan’s “RenderMan” technology helped refine graphics for movies like 1995’s “Toy Story” – though he left before the title’s hugely successful release. His platform enabled the studio to produce subsequent hits like “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters Inc.,” and dozens more.
RenderMan software has been used in almost all of the last 47 movies nominated for visual effects Academy Awards. It has also been used to advance AI and other fields in video gaming.
“What makes skin look like skin? What makes a tree look like a tree? You have to understand the structure of material and how light interacts with it,” Hanrahan told the Associated Press upon his and Catmull’s Turing win.
In 2006, Disney bought Pixar for $7.4bn. Hanrahan, who became a Stanford University professor in 1995, developed data visualization firm Tableau, at which he is still chief scientist. Catmull continued his career with Disney until retirement, aged 73, at the end of 2018.
“Most think of animation as the characters just moving around in funny ways while they deliver their lines, but great animators carefully craft the movements that elicit an emotional response, convincing us that these characters have feelings, emotions, intentions,” wrote Catmull in his 2014 book “Creativity, Inc.”
The Turing Award, given by the Association for Computer Machinery, was inaugurated in 1966 and remains computing’s most highly-regarded achievement. Its first winner was US programming language professor Alan Perlis. Last year’s award was shared by Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Yann LeCun, for their pioneering work in AI.
Catmull and Hanrahan will receive their award at an annual banquet in California this June.