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Pixar pioneers behind Toy Story animation win “Nobel Prize” of computing

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Pixar pioneers behind Toy Story animation win "Nobel Prize" of computing

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Toy Story was the first feature film released by Pixar and became a billion dollar franchise

In the opening scene of Toy Story, launched in 1995, a set of boxes is spread over a child's room. The sun enters the room when a Mr. Potato Head doll demands money from a seemingly hit cast of plastic and plush toys outside a cardboard bench.

In the image comes the hero – a cowboy sheriff made of plastic and woven with a cord to make him speak. The sheriff casts a shadow over the villainous potato that escapes the law.

It is a scene plucked from a child's imagination. It was also the culmination of decades of development in computer animation.

This year, two of the men behind these advances, Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan, are the winners of the Turing Award. The award recognizes "lasting and important" contributions to the field of computing and is considered the "Nobel Prize" in computer science.

The prize is awarded by the Association for Computing Machinery and comes with a $ 1 million cash prize divided among the winners.

Computer animation

Dr. Catmull, one of Pixar's founders, the studio behind Toy Story, and Dr. Hanrahan, one of Pixar's first employees, were notified of his victory in early March.

This gave the two old friends and former colleagues enough time to get together for a celebratory meal before coronavirus blocking measures were implemented in California, where they both live.

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Pixar Studio was "a magical place" to work, according to Pat Hanrahan, who helped the studio develop software that creates 3D images.

"The digital revolution we've seen in all kinds of movies, television, games – probably nobody made a difference more than Ed and Pat," says David Price, author of The Pixar Touch.

To make Toy Story and other computer-animated films possible, Catmull, Hanrahan and their teams had to develop ways to make computers visualize three-dimensional objects.

During his postdoctoral studies, Dr. Catmull created a way for a computer to recognize a curved surface. When developers have a mathematically defined curved surface, they can start adding more features, such as texture and depth.

"Step by step, you find out what type of lighting should be applied. Then you start to incorporate physics because plastic reflects light in a way and metal reflects in a very different way," explains Dr. Catmull.

Dr. Catmull has always been interested in animation and cinema.

After obtaining his doctorate and working in a graphics laboratory in New York, he became the head of the Lucasfilms computer division, founded by George Lucas. The creator of Star Wars and Jurassic Park saw the potential of computer animation in films.

But Dr. Catmull says that his dream of making a computer animated film was still seen as "impractical".

"Most people dismissed the idea as an irrelevant dream."

Pixar is born

In 1986, Apple founder Steve Jobs appeared. He bought Lucasfilms' computer division and turned it into an independent company, Pixar.

At first, the company tried to sell computer hardware. When that didn't take off, Pixar returned to focusing on computer images.

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Ed Catmull

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Pat Hanrahan (left) left Pixar in 1989, but the contributions helped Ed Catmull and the remaining Pixar team develop their feature films.

Dr. Hanrahan was one of the company's first employees. He was tasked with creating a minimal standard for the way computer code is used to describe images.

"Pixar was a magical place," says Hanrahan, who now teaches at Stanford University.

He oversaw the creation of RenderMan – the software Pixar uses to create its 3D animation – working with teams from across the industry.

Shading and light

Fundamentally, Dr. Hanrahan figured out how to visualize how light is reflected on different surfaces. On surfaces such as human skin, some of the light passes through or is absorbed.

Achieving this level of light and shadow gave images that a computer could create a realistic look.

RenderMan was used to create animated films like Toy Story and Pixar's A Bug & # 39; s Life. It was also essential for visual effects from live action films, including Terminator 2, Titanic and Jurassic Park.

Developments in computer animation propelled the video game industry, as well as advances in virtual and augmented reality. And its progress is closely linked to advances in machine learning.

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Disney bought Pixar in 2006 and Ed Catmull became president of Pixar and Disney animation

"Waiting for computers to catch up

According to Dr. Catmull, the sharing of work across the sector and with other sectors has allowed for major advances, especially the processing power

Computers in the 1980s and 1990s had only a fraction of the processing power of laptops and smartphones today.

"(The lack of processing power) was definitely a limiting factor," explains Dr. Catmull.

"You almost spent your time working on the algorithms so that computing power could keep up with the ideas we had."

But even today, computer animated films have small armies of animators.

"It's a very laborious process, we still have to do a lot of things manually," says Hanrahan.

"If you want a character to roam the world and have a human movement that makes him think it's natural, that's a big problem … we have no idea how to do it well."

Developments in robotics have helped to make improvements in this area, demonstrating how crucial it is still to share learning across fields.

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Steve Jobs was mostly hands-off, but offered an honest external voice to Pixar developers

Although Steve Jobs was known as a very secret leader at Apple, Dr. Catmull says at Pixar that he was much more open and understood the need to share innovations.

"Publishing was one of the things that helped us attract the best people. Getting the best people was much more important than any idea and Steve understood that," says Dr. Catmull.

Creations that last

Job & # 39; s was also an essential external voice for Pixar films; he did not work on them, but he did appear to give his opinion. One of the memorable things he said to the Pixar team was that, although computers were thrown away every few years, the films they were creating would last for generations.

This is only the second time that the award is given for advancing in computer graphics.

The official Turing Award ceremony is scheduled for June 2020.

The coronavirus outbreak may have meant few people noticed when Dr. Catmull and Hanrahan's achievements were announced.

But with millions of people around the world locked in their homes, it is certain that many have watched the films that these men have made possible.

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