I thought it would be fun to highlight some of these people and the techniques they pioneered, plus provide links to further information for those of you interested in learning more.
As part of Catmull's PhD thesis, he developed a solution for tracking distances between objects in a 3D space and determining which portions of an object are hidden from the viewer. His solution is called the Z-buffer, which stores the distance between the viewer and objects at every point in a scene. At the same time, Catmull discovered a way to project an image onto the surface of an object. This allowed objects in a computer to take on the look of concrete, wood or any object and is known as texture mapping.
The Pixar Touch by David A. Price provides a thorough history of not only Catmull's work at the University of Utah but of the key people and developments of Pixar's history, from the earliest days at the New York Institute of Technology and Lucasfilm, through the forming of Pixar as a standalone corporation and its sale to the Walt Disney Company in 2006.
Alvy Ray SmithSmith was a pioneer in the area of digital paint systems. His first experience with these systems was at Xerox PARC using Dick Shoup's SuperPaint application. Smith developed his own paint application at NYIT, and followed it up with Paint3, which utilized 3 frame buffers simultaneously to provide a palette of over 16 million colors (each frame buffer supported 256 shades of a single color like red, green or blue. 3 frame buffers therefore could support 256^3 different colors).
In 1978, Smith also made the discovery of the alpha channel, or opacity, which allowed images to be superimposed on top of each other.
These advancements won Smith a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award, along with Dick Shoup and Pixarian Tom Porter, for their "pioneering work in the development of digital paint systems used in motion picture production."
Smith did a fabulous interview (with a detailed companion piece) with Mike Seymour on the fxguide podcast. Seymour and Smith discuss paint systems, the alpha channel and Smith's work at Lucasfilm and Pixar's early days, and is definitely worth a listen. In addition, Smith's website is full of great information on the history of digital paint systems.
Rob CookEarly on, Catmull realized that for computer generated animation to look believable, it would need to include motion blur. Motion blur is an artifact of using a film camera to record an image with moving object(s). While it is normal to try to reduce or eliminate motion blur when taking a photograph (to stop the motion of a wave crashing on rocks one would use a very fast shutter speed), motion blur is necessary to provide a realistic movie experience. Without it, a film would look similar to stop-motion and have a stutter feeling.
|Tom Porter's 1984 pool ball image|
I am greatly enjoying droidMaker. It is not solely about Pixar like The Pixar Touch, as it is follows George Lucas' career and his impact on the digital film revolution. But Pixar has a significant history with Lucas as Pixar was spun out of Lucasfilm, and the book does an excellent job covering the period of time up to where Pixar was spun out. It also covers a wide range of technical topics such as the beginnings of digital audio, computer graphic workstations and Sun Microsystems (much of my professional career has been done on Sun workstations), which I really enjoyed.
Loren CarpenterIn 1980, Loren Carpenter, then an engineer at Boeing, wanted to get into Lucasfilm. The problem was that everybody wanted to get into Lucasfilm at that time. He knew just sending a resume wouldn't be sufficient, he needed to impress Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. Carpenter had been applying fractal mathematics in his job and realized he could use fractals to create a whole range of objects from mountains to lightning bolts. He decided he would create a short film for the upcoming SIGGRAPH conference demonstrating his new algorithms. It took him over 4 months to create the 2 minute film, and when it was shown at SIGGRAPH it completely blew away the audience. Catmull and Smith, sitting in the front row, immediately offered Carpenter a job. Carpenter's algorithms were used extensively in creating the Genesis effect for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Carpenter has posted his SIGGRAPH video on vimeo, and even today it is a stunning piece of work. It's hard to imagine what he must have gone through to complete that video on the equipment of the day, all in his spare time!
Loren Carpenter and Rob CookCarpenter and Cook also were key contributors to Reyes (which stands for Render Everything You Ever Saw), the rendering system at Lucasfilm that later became the basis of RenderMan. Carpenter and Cook won an Academy Award in 2001 (along with Catmull) for their "significant advances in motion picture rendering".
Cook did a very interesting interview with fxguide's Mike Seymour a few years ago. The interview covers a large span of Cook's involvement with computer graphics and rendering, and includes an in-depth discussion of solving the motion blur problem, in addition to the history and advancements of RenderMan. It also covers Pixar's migration from being technology-focused to art-focused. Seymour and Cook also discuss the implications of John Lasseter's phrase, "Art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art."
|Bill Reeves (center) with myself and |
my son Sam at the CAM Benefit in 2011