Hannah, Marc 1956—

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Marc Hannah 1956

Computer scientist, engineer, special effects expert, businessman

At a Glance

Origins of SGI

Developed Technology for Broader Market

Other Business Interests


As one of the original founders of Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI), a company famous for its innovations in computer graphics, Marc Hannah is known as a special effects whiz. A specialist in three-dimensional, or 3-D graphics, Hannah is principal scientist and vice president of the company, which designs the computers used to create the effects for such movies as Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Aladdin, The Abyss, Death Becomes Her, The Hunt for Red October, Beauty and the Beast, Field of Dreams, and Lawnmower Man. In addition to several television commercials, SGI effects can also be seen in two of Michael Jacksons videos, Black and White and Remember the Time, as well as the helmets in the opening scenes of Monday Night Football.

But according to Hannah, all this high-profile business brings in only approximately 15 percent of SGIs overall revenues. The same 3-D technology is also used in less glamorous fields, by engineering and medical research companies, for example, for tasks ranging from designing cars and airplanes to analyzing gene sequences and creating designer drugs. The military even uses SGIs equipment for visual simulations in its training programs.

Hannah is not directly involved in producing special effects per sehe designs the computer equipment that special effects artists use to create the effects. The equipment is then purchased by companies such as research firms or movie studios, which employ their own special effects artists. We certainly talk with these companies to understand what their requirements are, what functions and features they need in the machine, he told CBB.

Star Wars producer George Lucas company, Industrial Light & Magic, purchased millions of dollars worth of computer equipment from SGI to make Arnold Schwarzneggers Terminator 2. Miles Perkins, a spokesperson for Industrial Light & Magic, told Ebony magazine that the high-tech computers developed by SGI are more advanced than those of many other companies, adding that their technology is high and their computers can easily handle massive amounts of information and functions.

A Chicago native, Hannah graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering. A scholarship and a fellowship awarded by AT&Ts Bell Laboratories helped finance his education

At a Glance

Born Marc Regis Hannah, on October 13,1956, in Chicago, IL, Education: Illinois Institute of Technology, BS (electrical engineering), 1977; Stanford University, MS, 1976, PhD, 1985.

Electrical engineer and computer graphics entrepreneur. Silcon Graphics Incorporated (SGI), cofounder and member of technical staff, 198285, principal scientist, 1986.

Selected awards: Professional Achievement Award, Illinois Institute of Technology, 1987; Professional Achievement Award, National Technical Association, 1987.

Addresses: Office Silicon Graphics, 2011 Sterlin Rd, Mountain View, CA 94043.

there. He then received a fellowship from Bell Labs to pursue his doctorate at Stanford University, which he completed in 1985.

Origins of SGI

At Stanford, Hannah met Jim Clark, a professor who had done research on 3-D images, which had also interested Hannah when he worked at Bell. Together with five others, they started SGI. They were thinking big, and raised $33 million in venture capital. The company went public in 1986. In 1981, Hannah was quoted as predicting that the companys annual revenues would top $1 billion by June 1990. When he was profiled in Fortune magazines On The Rise column in August of 1990, Hannah admitted, By those naive expectations, were behind schedule. It took until 1993 for the company to reach $1.1 billion, with a gross profit margin of 53 percent, according to Forbes. The Silicon Graphics compound, in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is housed in 11 structures and employs more than 3,500 people. In 1994, they opened a $3 million research and development center in England. The center is fully equipped to help U.K. companies develop products and software using high-tech computer graphics and virtual reality systems.

Hannah explained in an Ebony interview that 3-D images generated on computers are different from the effects seen through special glasses at 3-D movies. If you have a picture of a house on paper, he says, you get to see it from just one specific angle, but with 3-D you can use the computer to view that same house from different angles, change the color, raise the roof, change the floor plan, modify sections of it. It gives you the ability to move around like that. Its quicker and easier on computer. About his role as principal scientist at SGI, Hannah explained to Ebony, I primarily focus on the graphics side of things, deciding what performance level we are targeting, what the features will be and what price range we are seeking. I help determine the visual capabilities of the computers. He is also responsible for helping decide SGIs future directions.

Developed Technology for Broader Market

Hannah recently developed technology for the company that is making the same sophisticated 3-D graphics available at prices of $5,000 to $10,000. This is a substantial decrease from the previous low end of $10,000 to $30,000, with the high end at $800,000. He wants to see SGIs technology made available to ordinary people, and is expanding the companys market into this bracket, increasing overall sales. As he told Fortune in 1990, My goal is to broaden the market through lower prices.

SGIs move toward smaller, less expensive models has meant skirting the edge of what has been thought of as the personal computer market. To date, the desktop computer market has been dominated by IBM (and its imitators, or clone companies), and to a lesser extent, Apple Macintosh computer manufacturers. SGIs move in this direction is in turn forcing IBMs and Apples high-end prices down below the $5,000 mark, and challenging them to produce more efficient, sophisticated technology in order to compete with SGIs graphics capabilities, in terms of 3-D and multimedia. While this double trend, of SGI reaching downward, and IBM, et al., reaching upward, is stirring things up, it ultimately means better and less expensive computers for average citizens, regardless of the platform they purchase. All of this is making 3-D animation technology more available to individual artists and smaller companies. But even at $5,000, Silicon Graphics technology is still a cut above what PCs can offer.

SGIs strategy of late has been to diversify into new directions. In addition to developing virtual reality technology, SGI has been expanding into other markets, and exploring the possibilities of joint ventures with other companies, and spinning off subsidiaries, such as Silicon Studios. Hannah has been involved in the early conceptual stages of designing the companys new products. The projects are then passed on to teams of developers to complete.

With Nintendo, SGI is developing a 64-bit videogame player, which will reportedly cram the computing power of SGIs new low-end Indy workstation ($5,000) into a toy that will sell for only $250. Hannah points out that this is partly possible because the item will not require all the hardware of a workstation (viewing monitor, keyboard, etc.), but the processor will work with a home television set. They are also exploring the realm of interactive television, with Time Warner; have begun supplying database servers; and are considering buying out a few animation software companies. In addition, they are working on an interface for the Internet, which will allow users to browse the World Wide Web in 3-D.

Other Business Interests

No longer working 80-hour weeks for SGI, Marc Hannah is also part-owner of a minority-owned construction company in Oakland, called Rondeau Bay. He admitted to CBB that the company is struggling along, with revenues of $5 to $10 million. He expects to secure some $20 to $40 million contracts in the coming year. He predicts that 1996 will be a turning point for the company. It will be the year that either makes itor not, he joked. In this line of work, he has still encountered continuing racism, as he told Ebony magazine in 1993: Sometimes you think that race is not going to be an issue, but it is, he says. It still shocks me, some of the things that go on with some of these city engineers who do everything they can to keep from giving you a project. Rondeau Bays method of sewer repair, said Hannah, which uses plastic liners, is less destructive to streets and less expensive to taxpayers. We have better technology and lower prices. But some of these guys [city engineers] are on payrolls and dont get any special pats on the back for saving cities money.

In addition, Hannah sits on the board of directors for Magic Edge, a young company he has invested in, which supplies visual simulation to amusement parks nationwide. He says their product compares with Star Tours. Rather than play a movie like Star Tours and have motion correspond to the movie, he told Ebony, with our technology you might have a joystick and have the motion of flying. You actually fly it by using the joystick. You can flip over. There is a wider range of motions. You can give people the experience of weightlessness. SGI will provide the visual display system and Magic Edge provides the hardware.

In his spare time, Hannah also supervised the construction of a 6,000 square-foot home in the Valley, which he helped to design. Did he make use of his own 3-D computer modeling technology? No. Although he would have liked to, and he might have avoided a couple of small problems had he done so, Hannah says it is not yet cost-effective on such a small scale. Yet is the operative word in that sentence. Hannah fully expects SGI to be moving in that direction as well in the next year or two, making 3-D technology available and affordable to smaller architectural firms.

Summing up his role within the SGI team of specialists Hannah was quick to stress his teamwork with his colleagues to CBB, saying, My job is to look ahead two to three years and see whats coming. To see what consumers want, what they will want, and then to figure out how we can deliver thatat what price.


Ebony, February 1993, pp. 5558.

Electronics, July 11, 1994, p. 3.

Forbes, January 31, 1994, p. 10708,

Fortune, August 27, 1990, p. 105.

PC Magazine, April 25, 1995, p. 29.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from a CBB interview with Marc Hannah.

Marjorie Partch