Photoshop’s proud papa

20 years ago, ILM's Knoll turned his hobby into a hit

Twenty years after its debut, Photoshop is an indispensable tool for digital photography, publishing and even movie vfx. But few in the biz realize its origins go back to the day a young motion-control assistant at Industrial Light & Magic, John Knoll, dropped by ILM’s nascent computer graphics department and decided software development might be fun.

“If you do something as a passion, and then do it professionally, it’s less attractive as a hobby,” Knoll says. “So computer graphics became my new hobby.”

Coincidentally, he started working on the same tech challenges his older brother, Thomas Knoll, was wrestling with for his Ph.D thesis at U. of Michigan.

“I was whining about this problem when my brother told me he had already written a program for it,” Knoll adds. “I realized his approach was similar to what I saw at ILM, except that Tom had it running on a (consumer) computer.”

John Knoll suggested combining their ideas, and “thought maybe we could sell (the software) commercially. My brother told me I was insane.”

But Adobe released the brothers’ Photoshop 1.0 on Feb. 19, 1990, and it soon became the industry’s gold standard.

In the years since, John Knoll has become an Oscar-winning vfx supervisor, whose imprint is on the “Star Wars” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises.

“I occasionally dabble in software, but the last version of Photoshop I worked on was version 3.0 (in 1994),” he says. “Now, I feel like a proud parent — my baby has grown up.”