This year’s Turing Award winners helped Pixar create hit films

Seeing the smiles on children’s faces during the premiere of the hit animated film Toy Story over 20 years ago was a huge moment in Patrick Hanrahan’s career. The spirited on-screen rivalry between homely cowboy doll Woody and the glitzy Buzz Lightyear action figure would not have been possible without the 3D technology Hanrahan and his colleague Ed Catmull had developed.

“I’ll never forget when I went to the premiere,” Hanrahan told Fortune. “I’m slaving away working on algorithms all day in a dark room, and then I see all the joy that was brought to those kids’ faces.” 

Indeed, the software that Hanrahan, a former Pixar senior scientist, and Catmull, a former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, created has been used in many memorable films. From computer-animated blockbusters like Avatar and Finding Nemo to live-action movies loaded with special effects like Terminator 2 and Titanic, the duo’s technology helped link the wonky world of computer science with the creative sensibilities of the entertainment industry.

That’s why the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) said Wednesday that it would present Hanrahan and Catmull with this year’s Turing Award, considered to be the technology industry’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. The association presents the award, which comes with a $1 million prize, to individuals whose contributions to the field of computer science are so profound, that their work will likely have a major impact years from now. 

Hanrahan and Catmull will officially receive the award in June during the ACM’s awards banquet in San Francisco.

Last year, the ACM presented the Turing Award to Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton, and Yann LeCun for their research involving neural networks, the software that has led to several breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. This year’s award marks a shift from acknowledging the behind-the-scenes software responsible for automatically translating languages, among other tasks, to recognizing software that makes computer images in Hollywood movies look and move as if they are part of the physical world.

“I’m completely delighted,” said Catmull, who learned in a brief phone call last week that he and Hanrahan would win.

Catmull’s work in computer graphics began 50 years ago when he was researching how computers could represent “curved surfaces,” a far cry from the kinds of photo-realistic graphics seen today in cutting-edge video games and films. His early research also involved the technique of motion blur, used by computer animators to create a sense of movement in their graphics. 

Filmmaker George Lucas would eventually hire Catmull to work at Lucasfilm, which was pushing the envelope between art and computer graphics with hits like Star Wars. The late Steve Jobs then bought Lucasfilm’s computer animation unit in 1986, changed its name to Pixar, and picked Catmull to be the animation company’s president. Catmull then hired Hanrahan to work at Pixar, and the two began their partnership pushing the frontiers of computer graphics, culminating in the software they developed, called RenderMan, that Pixar used and also licensed to other computer animation studios.

Hanrahan, who started his career as an A.I. researcher, remembers that much of the work the two did during the late 1980s was theoretical in nature, because the computing hardware wasn’t quite up to par with the software they had in mind. But computer-chip makers like Nvidia were following the duo’s work and used Hanrahan’s 1990 landmark academic paper about 3D graphics to inform their own chipmaking projects.

“Nvidia had a strategy to improve the chips, which we benefited from,” said Catmull. 

The rise of graphics processing units, or GPUs, would eventually make it possible for Pixar to create the world’s first feature-length computer animated film in 1995—Toy Story. Still, Catmull considers Toy Story 2, released in 1999, to be Pixar’s “defining moment.” Several story-line changes resulted in Catmull’s team having “to remake the movie in about eight months,” resulting in numerous all-nighters and employee burnout.

Eventually, the movie came out and surpassed the original in terms of box-office sales and critical acclaim. Audiences considered the film both a technical and artistic marvel. 

For Hanrahan, it’s that link between art and technology that he finds special. Much of his work, like trying to create realistic looking digital skin, was driven by Pixar’s art team who would spur him to push the limits of computer science. 

“I have a lot of respect for artists,” Hanrahan said. “I would just love to see more attention paid to art in technology, and I think art doesn’t get the support it deserves.”

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