Ed Catmull to receive Gordon E. Sawyer Award

As John Lasseter tells it, there are few people alive who’ve had a greater impact than Ed Catmull on the way movies are made in the 21st century.

“George Lucas hired Ed Catmull in 1979,” Lasseter says, “to do four kind of insane ideas (and) develop them from scratch: digital nonlinear editing, digital sound editing, digital compositing of images and computer animation.”

Thirty years later, every one of those technologies is ubiquitous in the movie industry. “It’s Ed Catmull who made it all happen,” Lasseter says. “And it’s about time he got some credit for it.”

Saturday, at the Academy’s Sci-Tech Awards, the org honors Catmull’s contributions in the field of computer graphics with its Gordon E. Sawyer trophy.

“He’s one of the most humble people I’ve ever met,” says Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook. “He never takes credit. And yet you know that it really springs forth from him.”

Catmull’s strategy of hiring the smartest people around and offering them an environment where they can flourish includes giving people the freedom to take risks — and to fail.

“Imagine yourself as a trapeze artist,” Lasseter says. “In Hollywood, if you fail you’re usually fired, so there’s no net and there are poison spikes on the ground beneath you. So you don’t try to break that record. Ed not only puts a big net underneath you, but it’s full of down comforters. So there’s a line of people trying to land that quintuple somersault.”

With variations, he’s created similar communities at Lucasfilm, then at Pixar and now at Walt Disney Animation Studio.

“There were two risks when Pixar was acquired,” Catmull says. “Disney was paying a lot of money for a company where nobody was under contract. It would have been a disaster if people left. And would a big company inadvertently roll over the culture of the smaller company? We had to trust each other.”

Three years later, Pixar’s key people remain, and its culture is extending to WDAS, which changed from what Lasseter calls an “executive-centric” studio to one where the director is king, like Pixar.

One exec who stayed on and thrived with the change is Andrew Millstein, general manager of WDAS. “It’s an honor to be around people who so easily teach,” Millstein says. “Who doesn’t want to learn if you’re a curious person? The genius of Ed is he usually allows people to do that on their own.”

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