INTERVIEWS

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Rob Cook

Rob Cook is among the first people to have been awarded an Oscar for sofrware. Born in Knoxville, TN, Cook was educated at Duke University & Cornell University. He is the co-architect and primary author of Pixar's RenderMan. Cook has recently been appointed to be Director at Large for ACM SIGGRAPH.

Tell us a little about yourself I work at Pixar Animation Studios in the Research and Development Group. I went to Cornell University, and started working at Pixar in 1981, back when it was part of Lucasfilm. My first SIGGRAPH was in 1978 - and a lot has changed since then.
What first drew you to SIGGRAPH? I was drawn to SIGGRAPH in the first place because it was so much fun. But I keep coming back because of the amazing community of people here. Everyone is excited about what they and others are doing and there is hardly any jealousy, etc. That’s what hooked me. Adding to that, what’s great about this field is that it’s a place where many fields intersect. There are people from lots of different areas collaborating. It’s very exciting to be surrounded by so many inspiring and creative people: both artists and technical people.
What near/intermediate developments in CG do you look forward to? That’s easy, I look forward to the ones I’m not anticipating ;) I mean, for example, I know optimization is important but by the twentieth paper on optimizing some well-known problem is less exciting, less invigorating, than a paper on something that is completely new.

What contributions to the graphics community and SIGGRAPH are you
most proud of?

Probably RenderMan. When Loren Carpenter and I created the original program 21 years ago, we had no idea it would be used for so long – it’s gratifying to see it still having an impact and being used by so many people. A lot of that is not due to us at all - there are so many other people who’ve taken it so far beyond that original version - I’m just proud to have helped start the ball rolling.

I’m also proud having introduced programmable shading because it’s an attempt to address the tough problem of mixing art and science. A computer should be a great brush; it should make it easy for you to express your creative intent. What it shouldn’t do is try to automate the creative process or be creative for you. And I think that reflects what the proper relationship between people and technology should be like in general. You don’t want things to be too automatic; you still want things to be directed by people. The ideal is for things to be intuitive and responsive, making it easier for people to express their intent.

What was the first time you contributed to SIGGRAPH?My first contribution to SIGGRAPH was in 1980, when I worked on a paper with Eliot Feibush and Marc Levoy on antialiasing [Synthetic Texturing Using Digital Filters].

I also collaborated with Ken Torrance on a paper on shading algorithms, in 1981 [A reflectance model for computer graphics].

What year/city was your first SIGGRAPH? Which was most intense? Why? My first SIGGRAPH was in 1978, in Atlanta. Well, actually, my very first SIGGRAPH was in 1976, in Philadelphia. I was on a break from my job at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania [sidenote of interest: he was a computer programmer in the intensive-care unit there] and I just happened upon this conference called SIGGRAPH. Needless to say, I made sure I returned in following years!

My most intense conference would have to be the one in 1984. I was involved in multiple papers and courses. It was completely insane, and a lot of fun.

What's your favorite thing at this year or last year's SIGGRAPH?

The best things in this field are the unexpected things that come out of fields that do not normally intersect. I just sat in on a paper applying confocal microscopy techniques to underwater imaging. It’s unexpected and interesting. I love to be able to come in and see things like that.

Do you have any interesting or funny SIGGRAPH stories/anecdotes to
share with us?
Glen Entis of PDI was on my Electronic Theatre jury in 1985. We had seen a lot more good material than would fit in the evening show, and Glen thought we should have a forum for viewing that material. I managed to convince conference co-chair Pat Cole to come up with some space for us, and Glen created the Animation Screening Room program, which will have its 20th birthday next year.
Do you have any favorite computer graphics mentors? Wow- there are so many! If I had to name just one, it would be Don Greenberg (professor at Cornell). Other people who come to mind are Ed Catmull, Loren Carpenter, Marc Levoy (student at Cornell), Turner Whitted, Al Barr, and so many more that I don’t even know where to begin.
A few interesting facts that couldn’t go without mention:
  • In 2001, he and two colleagues were awarded the first Oscar ever given for software.
  • Of the last 35 films nominated for Visual Effects Oscars, 33 have used RenderMan.
  • Rob Cook is currently the Vice President of Software Engineering at Pixar Animation Studios
  • He served as Electronic Theater Chair in 1985 and Papers Chair in 1995.
  • In 1987, he received the ACM SIGGRAPH Achievement Award in recognition of his contributions to the fields of computer graphics and visual effects.
  • At the 1985 SIGGRAPH conference in San Francisco, he helped keep the good-natured SIGGRAPH ribbon phenomenon alive, passing out ribbons that said “Party Jury” on them. It was a ploy to get into all the parties…only he and the select few party jury ribbon wearers know how well things worked out.

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Last updated 9/16/04.

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