Computer Graphics Pioneers Win 2019 Turing Award
Written by David Conrad   
Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Founding members of Pixar, Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan, are the recipients of the 2019 ACM A.M. Turing Award. Considered to be the Nobel Prize of computing, this annual award, is worth $1 million and recognizes significant fundamental contributions - in this instance to computer graphics.


Established in 1966. the award was named to honor Alan M. Turing and is the most prestigious of those made by the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery).

The ACM's announcement states:

Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan have fundamentally influenced the field of computer graphics through conceptual innovation and contributions to both software and hardware. 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.

ed catmull

Edwin E. Catmull received his PhD in Computer Science from the University of Utah in 1974 with Ivan Sutherland, whom we regard as a father of computer graphics, as his supervisor. In his thesis, he introduced the groundbreaking techniques for displaying curved patches instead of polygons, out of which arose two new techniques: Z-buffering, which manages image depth coordinates in computer graphics, and texture mapping, in which a 2-D surface texture is wrapped around a three-dimensional object. While at Utah, Catmull also created a new method of representing a smooth surface via the specification of a coarser polygon mesh.

On leaving the University of Utah, Catmull founded the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) Computer Graphics Lab, one of the earliest dedicated computer graphics labs in the US.  Then in in 1979, George Lucas recruited Catmull to LucasFilm, where he and colleagues continued to develop innovations in 3-D computer graphic animation. In 1986, Steve Jobs bought LucasFilm's Computer Animation Division and renamed it Pixar, with Catmull as its President.

pat hanrahan

Patrick M. Hanrahan completed a PhD in BioPhysics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985, then worked briefly at NYIT's Computer Graphics Laboratory, and was one of Catmull's first hires at Pixar. There he was the lead architect of a new kind of graphics system, which allowed curved shapes to be rendered with realistic material properties and lighting. A key idea in this system, later named RenderMan, was shaders (used to shade CGI images). Hanrahan published his RenderMan research in a seminal 1990 paper that was presented at ACM SIGGRAPH. It would take five more years, however, for the computing hardware to develop to a point where the full-length 3-D computer animated movie Toy Story could be produced using Hanrahan's RenderMan system. After he left Pixar in 1989, Hanrahan held academic posts at Princeton and Stanford universities. Beginning in the 1990s, he and his students extended the RenderMan shading language to work in real time on powerful GPUs that began to enter into the marketplace. The programming languages for GPUs that Hanrahan and his students developed led to the development of commercial versions (including the OpenGL shading language) that revolutionized the writing of video games.
pixarNot only did Pixar make a succession of successful films using RenderMan, it also licensed the software to other film companies. RenderMan is now established as the standard workflow for CGI visual effects and it has been used in 44 of the last 47 films nominated for an Academy Award in the Visual Effects category, including Avatar, Titanic, Beauty and the Beast, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Star Wars prequels, among others. 

It is planned that ACM will present the 2019 A.M. Turing Award at its annual Awards Banquet on June 20 in San Francisco, California.

More Information

Pioneers of Modern Computer Graphics Recognized With ACM A.M. Turing Award

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 18 March 2020 )