Edwin Catmull

Edwin Catmull MormonDr. Edwin Earl Catmull is the current president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. As a computer scientist, Catmull has contributed to many important developments in computer graphics. Catmull is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church.

Dr. Catmull was born in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1945.  As a youth, Catmull dreamed of being an animator and created “flip books” to imitate animated cartoons.  He thought his chances were slim, however, so he used his talent in math and studied physics and computer science at the University of Utah. After graduating, he worked as a computer programmer at The Boeing Company in Seattle for a short period of time, before returning to Utah to go to graduate school in fall of 1970.

At the U of U, Catmull was the student of Ivan Southerland.  “Catmull saw Sutherland’s computer drawing program Sketchpad and the new field of computer graphics in general as a major fundament in the future of animation, which combined his love for both technology and animation, and decided to be a part of the revolution from the beginning.”  As a student Catmull made two new fundamental computer graphics discoveries: texture mapping, and bicubic patches.  He also invented algorithms for anti-aliasing and refining subdivision surfaces. He discovered Z-buffering, even though it had already been described 8 months before, in a case of near simultaneous, independent invention.   In 1973 Catmull made his earliest contribution to the film industry, an animated version of his left hand which was eventually picked up by a Hollywood producer and incorporated in the 1976 movie Futureworld.  [1]

Catmull  graduated and went to work as the director of the new Computer Graphics Lab at NYIT.  Catmull formed a talented research group working with 2D animation, mostly focusing on tools that could assist the animators in their work.  The team invented the PAINT program, the commercial animation program, TWEEN, SoftCell, and other programs.  Catmull and his team eventually left 2D animation and started to concentrate on 3D computer graphics, moving into the field of motion picture production.

In spite of all this technical progress, product development was slow, and in the late 1970′s the program began to founder.  The work of the team, however, had caught the attention of Hollywood directors George Lucas (Lucasfilm) and Francis Ford Cuppola.  Cuppola’s drug use repelled Mormon Catmull, but Lucas looked promising.  Meetings were held, and the computer research team at NYIT now had the opportunity to work with computer animation in the movie industry. Catmull was the first to leave, and in 1979 he became the Vice President at the computer graphics division at Lucasfilm.

At Lucasfilm, Catmull helped develop  digital image compositing technology used to combine multiple images in a convincing way.  Later, in 1986, Steve Jobs bought Lucasfilm’s digital division and founded Pixar, where Catmull became the Chief Technical Officer. At Pixar, he was a key developer of the RenderMan rendering system used in films such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo.

Disney purchased Pixar in 2006.  Catmull and John Lasseter were commissioned to revitalize Disney’s animation studio in Burbank, California. To increase creativity, they utilized a combination of hand-drawn animation art and digital animation.

In 1993 Catmull won an Academy of Motion Pictures Scientific and Technical Award for the development of PhotoRealistic RenderMan software, which produces images used in motion pictures from 3D computer descriptions of shape and appearance.   In 1995 he was inducted as a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery.  In 1996 he won another Academy technical award for pioneering invention in Digital Image Compositing.  He won again in 2001, and in 2009 (for 2008) Catmull was awarded with the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, which honors “an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.”

In an article on Pixar’s “Collective Genius,” [2] Catmull’s leadership style is described as follows:

“Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull exemplifies the greatest form of leadership: empowering others to achieve the extraordinary.”

At Pixar, employees at all levels support one another.  The article calls Catmull an unpretentious man.

“For decades, Ed’s driving ambition was to help create the first full-length computer-animated feature film. After realizing that dream with Toy Story, he set himself a new goal: to build an organization that could continually produce magic long after he and Pixar’s other co-founders were gone.

“This is the challenge for all entrepreneurs: to make the transition from doing something themselves to creating organizations that can carry on without them. Walt Disney, genius that he was, failed this test.

“Ed and his fellow executives give directors tremendous authority….Senior management sets budgetary and timeline boundaries for a production and then leave the director and his team alone….Even when a director runs into deep trouble, Ed and the other executives refrain from personally taking control of the creative process. Instead, they might add someone to the team whom they think might help the director out of his bind. If nothing works, they’ll change directors rather than fashion solutions themselves.

“Humanity loves heroes. But some of the most exceptional unsung heroes in business are the managers who resist taking authority and the limelight and build a solid stage where others can be stars.”

Catmull’s leadership style is reflective of the pattern of lay leadership in Mormonism.  Members learn to both lead and follow as they serve in callings, and empowering others is an important part of serving in the Church.