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Two of Pixar Animation Studios’ earliest employees, Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan, have won the computer industry’s prestigious Turing Prize for their contributions to 3D graphics and CGI filmmaking.

The duo will split the $1 million cash prize for the Association for Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award, which is sometimes referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Computing” and named for British mathematician and computer scientist Alan M. Turing.

Catmull is a computer scientist and former president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, who retired from his Pixar post in 2018. Hanrahan, a founding Pixar employee, currently is a professor in Stanford University’s Computer Graphics Laboratory.

“Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan have fundamentally influenced the field of computer graphics through conceptual innovation and contributions to both software and hardware,” ACM said in announcing the award Wednesday. “Their work has had a revolutionary impact on filmmaking, leading to a new genre of entirely computer-animated feature films beginning 25 years ago with ‘Toy Story’ and continuing to the present day.”

Collectively, the four movies in the Pixar “Toy Story” franchise alone have generated over $3 billion at the box office worldwide. Disney acquired Pixar Animation Studios in 2006 for $7.4 billion.


Ed Catmull (left) and Pat Hanrahan. Photo credits: Pixar/Deborah Coleman (Catmull); Stanford U./Andrew Brodhead (Hanrahan)

In granting the award to Catmull and Hanrahan, ACM said their developments in 3D computer imagery have been central to the video-game industry, as well as in the fields of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

“CGI has transformed the way films are made and experienced, while also profoundly impacting the broader entertainment industry,” ACM president Cherri Pancake said in a statement. “We are especially excited to recognize Pat Hanrahan and Ed Catmull, because computer graphics is one of the largest and most dynamic communities within ACM.”

In 1986, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs bought Lucasfilm’s Computer Animation Division and renamed it Pixar, tapping Catmull as its president. One of Catmull’s first hires at Pixar was Hanrahan, who had received a PhD in biophysics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked briefly at NYIT’s Computer Graphics Laboratory.

Hanrahan, working with Catmull and other members of the Pixar team, was the lead architect of a new kind of graphics system — later named RenderMan — which allowed curved shapes to be rendered with realistic material properties and lighting. During his time at Pixar, Hanrahan also developed techniques for volume rendering, which lets a CGI artist render a 2D projection of a 3D data set (such as a puff of smoke). Hanrahan left Pixar in 1989 to return to academia, but the RenderMan system would go on to power the production of Pixar’s blockbuster hits, starting with 1995’s “Toy Story.”

Under Catmull’s leadership, Pixar made series of successful films using RenderMan, which the company also licensed to other companies. The software has been used in 44 of the last 47 films nominated for an Oscar in the visual effects category, including “Avatar,” “Titanic,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and the “Star Wars” prequels.

ACM said it will present the Turing Award to Catmull and Hanrahan at its annual awards banquet on June 20 in San Francisco.

(Pictured above: Pixar’s original “Toy Story” released in 1995)

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