SAN FRANCISCO – Pat Hanrahan was a young biophysics student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the ’80s when he decided to give up his work with microscopic insects and join a small group of computer scientists in their quest to make a movie.
The group was led by Ed Catmull, a pioneer in computer graphics who became chief technology officer at a new company called Pixar. The movie was “Toy Story”, the famous animated movie released in the fall of 1995.
On Wednesday, the Association for Computer Machines, the largest society of computer professionals, said Dr. Sc Hanrahan and Dr. Catmull will receive this award-winning Turing Award for his work on three-dimensional computer graphics. The Turing Prize is often referred to as the Nobel Prize in Computer Science and comes with a $ 1 million prize, which will be shared by two members of what is often called the C.G.I., or computer-generated images.
Their work has changed not only animated films, but Hollywood special effects, video games and virtual reality.
“Both Pat and Ed have had widespread influence across multiple industries, both with their technical contributions and their leadership,” said David A. Price, author of Pixar Touch: Creating a Company. “Many of the basic techniques in three-dimensional computer graphics came from Ed or the people he led.”
When they started, young researchers hoped to create a complete image-based feature that would be created by a computer. Dr. Hanrahan did not think he would achieve this goal, but he felt that they could move on.
“I thought it would be possible throughout my life, but I could spend the rest of my life working on it,” Dr. Hanrahan, 64, said in an interview.
After joining Pixar in 1986, he oversaw the development of a graphics system called RenderMan, building on more than a decade of Dr. Catmull and others. RenderMan played a key role in the creation of “Toy Story” and many of Pixar’s ensuing features, creating ever more realistic 3-D animation. But his influence on the movie business extended beyond characters like Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
In the late 1980s, Dr. Hanrahan and his Pixar colleagues licensed RenderMan to other filmmakers. They also released the RenderMan Shading language – a computer language that allowed anyone to change technology. As a result, technology has improved much faster.
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Even before the release of “Toy Story”, RenderMan was used to create special effects for seminar films like James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and Steve Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” He later eliminated making films such as “Avatar,” “Titanic,” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
In the early 1970s, Dr. Catmull was a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah under one of the fathers of the founder of computer graphics, Ivan Sutherland. When he moved to New York Institute of Technology on Long Island and later Lucasfilm, a film production company in Northern California that made “Star Wars” films, he offered an academic sensibility, inspiring his engineers to share their work with a wider community of researchers.
“I didn’t have a great time in Utah,” Dr. Catmull, 74, said in an interview. “I wanted to take a lot of the same principles and apply them to the next place.”
With Pixar, that attitude continued. Although Pixar was owned by Steve Jobs – whose belief in corporate secrecy became world-famous as he built his second company, Apple – Pixar engineers like Dr. Hanrahan regularly published academic papers describing the basic details of their work.
“Almost every project was owned by a community of computer scientists,” said Michael Rubin, author of “Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution,” who worked with Dr. Catmull in Lucasfilm. “A product like RenderMan is not just something Pixar has made for Pixar. It belonged to the community. “
This accelerated the development of software and hardware such as the specialized computer chips needed to produce 3-D images. These graphical processing units, or G.P.U.s., launched three-dimensional computer games that became ubiquitous in the 1990s and 2000s. Later, they played an important role in virtual reality design and artificial intelligence technology, including techniques that support automotive engines, face recognition services, and conversations with digital assistants like Alex.
Much of this work was driven by new computer languages that allowed anyone to create new software for those chips – similar to those fed by RenderMan. They could also root as far as Dr. Hanrahan. After leaving Pixar in 1989, he continued his research as a professor at Princeton and Stanford, where he and his students helped develop these languages.
Dr. Catmull eventually became President of Pixar, and after Walt Disney Company took over Pixar in 2006, he helped transform the animation into a nearly 80-year-old movie studio.
“There is no one who has had such a profound and widespread influence on computer graphics as Ed Catmull,” Mr. Rubin said.
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