Computer Graphics Pioneers Catmull, Hanrahan Win Tech's Turing Prize
In this June 5, 2018 file photo, Pixar President Edwin Catmull arrives at the world premiere of "Incredibles 2" at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles. The technology behind beloved animated children’s movies like Toy Story and special effects is the focus of this year’s Turing Award, the technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. Catmull and Patrick Hanrahan won the prize for their contributions to 3-D computer graphics used in movies and video games. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
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The technology that animated movies like “Toy Story” and enabled a variety of special effects is the focus of this year’s Turing Award, the technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize.

Patrick Hanrahan and Edwin Catmull won the prize for their contributions to 3-D computer graphics used in movies and video games. 

Catmull was hired by legendary filmmaker George Lucas to head the computer-technology division that became Pixar when Apple founder Steve Jobs bought it. Hanrahan was one of Catmull’s early hires at Pixar, now part of Disney.

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 and worked there for more than three decades, additionally serving at one time as president of Walt Disney Animation Studios.

“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,” said Hanrahan who is now a professor in the Computer Graphics Laboratory at Stanford University. “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 100,00-plus frames that make up a movie.”

Hanrahan’s “RenderMan” software 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 “Titanic” and the “Lord of the Rings” films.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), which awards the prize, says 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. The chips that were developed for video-game graphics were so powerful that they could then be used to train AI algorithms.

The ACM A.M. Turing Award carries a $1 million prize, with financial support provided by Google, Inc. It is named for Alan M. Turing, the British mathematician who articulated the mathematical foundation and limits of computing and who was a key contributor to the Allied cryptanalysis of the Enigma cipher during World War II. Since its inception in 1966, the Turing Award has honored the computer scientists and engineers who created the systems and underlying theoretical foundations that have propelled the information technology industry.

Though the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on events, Hanrahan and Catmull are currently scheduled to formally receive the 2019 ACM A.M. Turing Award at ACM’s annual awards banquet on Saturday, June 20, in San Francisco.

ACM is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, uniting computing educators, researchers and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources and address the field’s challenges. ACM strengthens the computing profession’s collective voice through leadership, promotion of the highest standards, and recognition of technical excellence. ACM supports the professional growth of its members by providing opportunities for life-long learning, career development, and professional networking.

ACM’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH) convenes the annual SIGGRAPH conference, attended by computer professionals from around the world. The organization also sponsors other conferences, and regular events are held by its professional and student chapters in several countries.


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