Ever wonder how animated movies like Toy Story and Monsters Inc. feature such realistic tree leaves or fluffy blue fur? Two graphics experts are responsible for the technology that enabled such striking special effects. The duo has won this year’s Turing Award, the tech industry’s version of the Nobel Prize.
Patrick Hanrahan and Edwin Catmull won the Turing Award for their contributions to 3-D computer graphics. Their work is still widely used in movies and video games.
Filmmaker George Lucas first hired Catmull to head the computer-technology division that became Pixar, and then Disney. Catmull asked Hanrahan to join him.
Together, the two worked on techniques that made graphics in movies like Toy Story look more lifelike, even though Hanrahan left Pixar years before the studio released that film. Catmull is the former president of Pixar. He worked there for more than three decades.
Catmull and Hanrahan’s work has as much to do with science as art. “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 says. “Only then is it possible to translate that understanding of how the physics of curved surfaces—our hands, our noses—works with light into the 100,000-plus frames that make up a movie.”
Hanrahan developed “RenderMan” software. That helped produce Toy Story in 1995 and then a string of Pixar films like Up, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and Wall-E. It was also the backbone of CGI special effects in live-action movies such as the Lord of the Rings films.
The Association for Computing Machinery awards the prize. Association officials say filmmakers used RenderMan software in nearly all of the last 47 movies nominated for a visual effects Academy Award.
The technology has also indirectly helped the artificial-intelligence field. Catmull and Hanrahan developed such powerful computer chips for video-game graphics—the chips could also be used to train AI systems.
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(A preview image for “Toy Story 4.” Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)