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March 31

March 31, 1945 – Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, is Born

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“I drew a lot; I wanted to be an animator. I wanted to be an artist. But at the same time, I believed that I wasn’t good enough to be an animator, so I switched over to physics and computer science. As soon as I took the first class, I just fell in love with it, it just blew everything else away.”

On March 31, Edwin Earl Catmull was born on March 31, 1945, in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Although he loved to draw from an early age and dreamed of becoming an animator, he believed early on that he didn’t have the talent necessary, and decided to study physics and computer science at the University of Utah. Around the country at that time, funding was given to select universities to pursue computer science, and Catmull participated in one of the first labs in computer graphics. In this lab, Camtull created a short computer-animated film of his own left hand, which ultimately helped in the development in creating curved surfaces and eliminating jagged edges. This film was inducted into the National Archives in December, 2011 as a ground-breaking work. In 1974, Catmull graduated with his PhD. Soon after graduation, Alexander Schure, founder of the New York Institute of Technology, hired Catmull as the head of the computer graphics department in the hopes of creating new tools and products to create computer animation. There, Catmull met Alvy Ray Smith, who became a close collaborator and friend for many years. At NYIT, Catmull and his research group developed several tools that would allow animators to draw and paint directly into the computer, including Tween, Paint, and SoftCel.

The work being done by Catmull and his team was noticed by George Lucas, who hired Catmull to form a new computer division at Lucasfilm. Catmull accepted the offer, and in 1979, he became the Vice President of the computer graphics division. Catmull and Smith, however, were still working toward the goal of a completely computer animated full-length film. Tom Porter, technical director at Pixar noted that, “…Ed and Alvy realized, in order to get in the game, we’ve got to put characters up on the screen, and that meant character animation, and that changed everything right there.” As luck would have it, Catmull ran into John Lasseter at a conference, and Catmull jumped at the chance to bring a real animator to Lucasfilm to help realize the dream of a computer animated film. With Lasseter, the group created the short film The Adventures of Andre and Wally B., along with new software to replicate the squash and stretch movements of traditional animation, which was well received at the 1984 SIGGRAPH conference. Catmull and the team also developed the most powerful graphics computer of the time: the Pixar Image Computer. However, sales of this computer were stagnant, as the software was only sold in limited markets. Catmull and Smith, with Lucas’ blessing, spun off the computer division as Pixar, and struggled to find an investor.

Catmull (L) with the rest of the Pixar team from Lucasfilm

Catmull (L) with the rest of the Pixar team from Lucasfilm

In 1986, their prayers were answered when Steve Jobs heard of Pixar. “That was the first time I met Ed [Catmull], and he shared with me his dream to make the world’s first computer-animated film. And I, in the end, ended up buying into that dream, both spiritually and financially,” Jobs shared in an interview. He launched Pixar, and Catmull was named as Chief Technical Officer. He also helped develop the RenderMan system used in Toy Story and Finding Nemo. In 2006, when Disney acquired Pixar, Catmull was then named the President of Pixar and Disney Animation, and with Lasseter, the two were put in the prime position of bringing the art of 2-D animation back to life. “Everybody at Pixar loves 3-D animation, you know, we helped develop it. But we also love 2-D animation, and to think that 2-D was shut down, and that [Pixar was] used as an excuse to shut it down was awful,” Catmull said about the decision of most animation studios shutting down their traditional animation studios. “We saw this art form being thrown away, so for us, it was just, it was a tragic time.” Bob Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Studios, wanted to take the studio back to the glory days of animation, and knew that Pixar had the right people to do that. “While we will make 3-D movies, we’re also going to make 2-D movies, cause it’s part of this wonderful heritage that we’ve got here, and it’s a beautiful art form,” says Catmull. “It feels like this [partnership between Disney and Pixar] is the true culmination of the building of Pixar and this amazing company into something which will continue on and continue to make waves in the future.”

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