Catmull, Edwin E.
Edwin E. Catmull
President of Pixar Animation Studios
Born March 31, 1945, in Parkersburg, WV; married Susan; children: five. Education: University of Utah, B.S. (computer science), B.S. (physics), Ph.D.
Office—Pixar Animation Studios, 1200 Park Ave., Emeryville, CA 94608.
Computer–animation pioneer. Began career as director of the Computer Graphics Lab, 1975; vice president of Computer Division, Lucasfilm Ltd., 1979–86; co–founder and chief technical officer, Pixar Animation Studios, 1986&mdash, president, 1986–95, 2001—.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Co–recipient, Academy Award for Scientific & Technical Engineering Achievement, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1993 and 1996; co–recipient, Academy Award of Merit, Significant Advances in the Field of Motion Picture Rendering, 2001.
Edwin E. Catmull heads Pixar Animation Studios, the California–based enterprise that pioneered digital animation for film. The company, which made the hit movies Toy Story and Finding Nemo, has become one of the entertainment industry's surprise financial success stories, but bringing computer–drawn figures to life on the big screen proved a greater challenge than Catmull, who has spent much of his career working in the field, ever expected. "I thought it would probably take ten years to get to the point where we could really use computer graphics in movies," he told Guardian writer David Teather. "The reality is it took more like 20 years."
Catmull was born in West Virginia in 1945, but grew up with his four siblings in Utah, where his father was a school principal. From an early age, he dreamed of a career with the Walt Disney Company, the world's leading feature–film animation studio for much of the twentieth century, but realized as he came of age that perhaps he lacked the artistic ability to land a job with the prestigious Disney corps of animators. Instead, Catmull studied physics and computer science at the University of Utah, earning degrees in each, before entering the school's Ph.D. program in computer science, which he finished in 1974.
While completing his doctorate, Catmull worked on some of first computer–generated experiments that made it into Hollywood film. He created an animated version of his own hand, for example, that was seen in the 1976 sci–fi thriller Futureworld. The University of Utah was a hotbed of innovation in the field at the time, and its reputation landed Catmull and some other newly minted Ph.D.s jobs with the New York Institute of Technology in 1975. This was the brainchild of an unconventional New York millionaire, Alexander Schure, who hoped to make the first–ever computer–animated feature film. Catmull ran the Computer Graphics Lab for Schure, but he eventually realized that the Long Island enterprise lacked the technical expertise to make a credible animated film.
In 1979, Catmull moved west to take a job with Lucasfilm Ltd. in northern California. Named after its founder, noted Star Wars director George Lucas, the studio was also interested in creating an entirely computer–animated feature film, and Catmull was hired to set up this division. Some of the technological breakthroughs that Catmull made during this time found their way into Lucas' other projects, such as a minute–long transformation of a barren planet to life in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982. He also developed the first computer program to mimic "motion blur," a crucial element in making animation realistic to the human eye. Lucasfilm made one computer–animated short film, Andre and Wally B., in 1984, before Lucas decided to unload the division for financial reasons. Catmull was determined to find a committed buyer, and approached Steven P. Jobs, co–founder of Apple Computer. Jobs had recently departed Apple with an immense amount of capital, but was initially wary of getting into the entertainment business. Finally, nearly a year later, Jobs agreed to take over, and Catmull and the other pioneers were able to keep their jobs.
Jobs bought the company Catmull was running in 1986 for $10 million, and rechristened it Pixar Animation Studios, a name taken from the computer hardware it had developed that processed images. Later that year, Pixar premiered the short Luxo, Jr. at the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics (SIGGRAPH) convention in Dallas, Texas, an event that earned a mention in Time magazine. The cartoon featured two iconic Luxo desk lamps playing catch with one another, and incited an industry buzz. "The crowd had greeted some earlier offerings with hoots and good–natured catcalls," noted Time journalist Philip Elmer–DeWitt. "But when the Luxo lamps appeared, bathed in each other's light and seemingly imbued with human emotions, the hall burst into prolonged and enthusiastic applause."
Luxo, Jr. was even nominated for an Academy Award, and Catmull termed this a crucial turning point for the company. "Even though it didn't win, I think it was really the milestone," he recalled in an interview with Variety's Laura A. Ackley. "When people saw this, they said, 'Oh, this is what computer animation is all about.'" It would be nearly another decade before Pixar was able to finish and release its first full–length feature, however. Only when another short, Tin Toy from 1988, won the Academy Award in its category did Pixar find a studio willing to take on the onerous production costs in return for a share of the box–office take. That studio was Disney, and the result was Toy Story in 1995. "The reason we picked toys was that we could do them," Catmull told Teather in the Guardian. "They are made of plastic. We were at the hairy edge of what we could do."
An initial public offering (IPO) of Pixar stock, buoyed by Toy Story's box–office success, helped put the company on more solid financial ground in the late 1990s. The IPO even forced Catmull to relinquish his chief executive officer title to Jobs for a time, in order to provide Wall Street with a recognizable name. He still led the team, however, and it went on produce a string of hits, from the Toy Story II sequel to Monsters, Inc. Catmull remained, as BusinessWeek writer Peter Burrows asserted, "keeper of the company's unique corporate culture, which blends Silicon Valley techies, Hollywood production pros, and artsy animators." He regained his title of Pixar's president in 2001. Finding Nemo, the studio's 2003 release about a hapless clown fish in search of his son, became the top–grossing film in Pixar history: four months after its release, it had taken in more than $336 million, and also became the highest–grossing animated film in history.
Catmull, married and the father of five, oversees a studio that employs 750 at its offices in Emeryville, California, near the city of Oakland. At Pixar, employees are forbidden to work more than 50 hours per week without authorization, and many enjoy perks Catmull has instituted, such as an in–house masseuse and regular Pilates classes. He and his team were now working on the next big step in computer animation: the human form. Pixar's next project was titled The Incredibles, about a gang of suburban crime–fighters. "It is a totally different challenge," Catmull told the Guardian's Teather. "The humans in our previous films were not the strongest element."
BusinessWeek, June 30, 2003, p. 68.
Guardian (London, England), October 11, 2003, p. 34.
PC, November 15, 1998, p. 98.
Time, September 1, 1986, p. 66.
Variety, July 20, 1998, p. 32.