eTech & Art & More

Interview with Edwin Catmull

By Hal Newnan
12 August 2001

Dr. Guiliano, President of the New York Institute
of Technology (NYIT), joined Edwin Catmull, President of Pixar Animation Studios, for an interview preceding the ceremony where Dr. Catmull was to be presented with the NYIT President's Medal for Arts and Technology. They were both most kind and informative. They illuminated for me many points about the history of the development of Computer Graphics (hereafter CG) and themselves.

I also met Lance Williams who will be presented by Edwin Catmull with The Steven Anson Coons Award for Outstanding Creative Contributions to Computer Graphics (considered to be the highest award for CG). Lance filled me in on several tricky points about Edwin Catmull, and now works for Disney - but has worked for Apple, and was also a student at the University of Utah and NYIT.

What first drew you to computer graphics?

When I was a kid I wanted to be an animator. I switched over to physics at the University of Utah in 1963 and graduated in 74 with a Ph.D., but there was a gap of time during that when I was working. The four years of undergraduate study earned me a double major in physics and computer science. Then I studied at NYIT and it funded computer animation studies, which was rare at the time. At one point NYIT had more equipment and activity for animation and computer graphics than the rest of the world combined. NYIT continues to be a leader in producing industry leaders.

Do you have any favorite CG mentors?

I had several one was Stephen Coons, and another was Ivan Sutherland. Ivan Sutherland was a Professor at Utah considered to be the father of computer graphics. Stephen Coons could be considered its grandfather.

What was the first time you contributed to SIGGRAPH?

I don't remember the first; my first publication was back in 1973 before SIGGRAPH, and we did like 25 papers from NYIT. Edwin Guiliano interjects: "He was it. They were creating computer graphics. A pioneer. He comes from West Virginia."

What year/city was your first SIGGRAPH? Which was most intense? Why?

I started at NYIT in '74 and the first SIGGRAPH was in '73, the first paper was probably on animation in 2D and why it's harder than most people think it is.

The very first two SIGGRAPHs were not very consequential; the 3rd was in Philadelphia. But the fourth one changed the world! It was in San Jose. Jim George and Steve Levine ran it and took a new tack. It took a whole week and followed today's format (where it had been only 2 days over a weekend). People showed up for the conference and the hotel overbooked, but it was business art and education and science (technology) all in one place, and that combination was extremely exciting.

What contributions to SIGGRAPH are you most proud of?

I've written several papers that have had some impact, they included papers on Texture Mapping, Motion Blur, Z buffers, and architecture for the renderer (RenderMan) they use in the movie industry. And winning the Coons award.

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

Honestly, it's the chance to reconvene with my peers and colleagues, which is actually my favorite thing. One of the best things about SIGGRAPH is that it's vital and it changes each year. This year the significant new researcher award is new, and I'm the chair of the awards committee. And Lance Williams was also at NYIT for some years, and I will present him the Coons. Jim Blinn also spent some time at NYIT (as an intern).

NYIT was an amazing time; we had more equipment than the rest of the world combined; the foundations for computer animation were laid there. And several of the people of Pixar went there. On November 2nd "Monsters Inc" is coming out.

NYIT was heavily involved in the early SIGGRAPHS, and this year there are 25 people including the chair of the conference (and that's a big job) from NYIT. We were here at the beginning and we are still here. We are a prime source of talent to the industry.

Catmull-Rolm splines are still used in animation packages.

Ed Catmull also provided continuity to the recent "story of computer graphics" movie.


This page is maintained by YON - Jan C. Hardenbergh All photos you see in the 2001 reports are due to a generous loan of Cybershot digital cameras from SONY