Dr. Edwin Earl Catmull: An Unlikely Animator

Sometimes, working in a multimedia art school can make anyone who did not have a degree in visual arts feel…well…out of place.  I had always been drawn to visual communication, but somehow, I never really chose to take an art degree. If I look into the core of my talents, I see that I am half a programmer and half a designer — never quite fitting in the arts and never quite fitting in the sciences either. But I do know where I am good at: studying every nuance of every field, taking note of the differences, and making sure that each field would work harmoniously with the others. It has always been this way with every career. I am very good with harmonizing processes but very bad at being part of the process, mostly because I get bored and I try to find some other system to fix. (In the hardcore IT world, I am called a systems analyst. In UI Design, I am called an information architect. In game development, I am a gameplay specialist. In the realm of multimedia arts, I don’t even have a name so I just settled by calling myself a multidisciplinary artist.)

 To Infinity and Beyond. One of the inspiring books that talk about the founding of Pixar 
and how multidisciplinarians harnessed their creative will.

Has anyone else ever felt this career identity crisis? I look at our roster of faculty members and it just makes me smile. Daniel Enriquez is a mechanical engineer who teaches 3D. DK Crame also teaches 3D but he is a graduate of Fine Arts.  Luna Pagarigan grew up a painter but went into electronic engineering in college; she’s now teaching Game Development. Agnes de Vera was a voice major at the UST Conservatory of Music; she’s teaching 2D animation.  Elvert dela Cruz Bañares was a broadcasting major; he’s now teaching all sorts of visual disciplines from photography to video production.

The bottom line is: Regardless of where we came from, we are all multimedia communicators. The processes may be different but the goal is the same. We must be able to communicate our messages effectively through our medium of choice.

Reading Dr. Edwin Earl Catmull’s history inspired me yesterday. For those of you who don’t know yet, he is currently the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. Here’s a summary of his educational background:

  • BS Physics, University of Utah (1969)
  • BS Computer Science, University of Utah (1969)
  • PhD Computer Science, University of Utah (1974)
  • New York Institute of Technology Scholar (1974-79)
    A screenshot I took of Dr. Catmull from the “Ed Catmull Receives First Pausch Prize” video 
    found at the Carnegie Mellon University (my dream uni) YouTube site

    Enough to make your nose bleed, eh?  Thing is, Dr. Catmull had always loved animation.  As a child, he had been inspired by Disney’s Peter Pan and Pinocchio.  He yearned to become a feature film animator someday, coming up with his own animation sequences using flip books.  To get into the film industry, however, he tapped into his left brain, calling upon his mathematical abilities to develop programs that would get him recognized in the field of 2D animation and eventually in 3D animation. He gained the attention of George Lucas, who made him the Vice-President of the Computer Graphics Division at Lucasfilm Ltd.  This division was later bought by Steve Jobs and Pixar, which was responsible for Toy Story and Finding Nemo, was born. Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006.

    Dr. Catmull’s contributions? Let’s just say, multimedia artists should thank him for pioneering z-buffering, texture mapping, bicubic patches, anti-aliasing (and refinement of subdivision surfaces), digital image compositing technology…the list is endless.

    Awards? He has lots of them:

    • Academy Scientific and Technical Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the development of the PhotoRealistic RenderMan
    • Academy Scientific and Technical Award for his works (inventions, actually) with Digital Image Compositing
    • Oscar for Pixar’s RenderMan
    • Gordon E. Sawyer Award at the 81st Academy Awards
    • Coons Award (this is the highest award to be given in the field of CG)
    • Ub Iwerks Award

    I’m sure I missed something along the way.  The important point is, your educational background does not matter in the greater scheme of things (or it does, when it comes to the direction you want to go). You will always return to where your passion lies. Dr. Catmull seems to be living his childhood dream — the passion that fuels it is what made him successful.  Here is a genius whose creativity knows no boundaries. His interviews always give me inexplicable joy…even though he speaks so softly.

    Let me just share with you the very first video I saw of him. Found it at the Agile Game Development blog. The Economist’s U.S. Technology Correspondent Martin Giles asked, “What makes a creative company? Will Pixar reveal its secrets?”



    1. Anonymous

      June 15, 2010 at 10:47 pm

      I should've taken up culinary… then pursue 3d. 😀

    2. skysenshi

      June 15, 2010 at 11:37 pm

      Laygo? That you?
      Oh, you'd be surprised how much a chosen degree can actually help in your endeavors in a seemingly unrelated field.

    3. Anonymous

      June 15, 2010 at 11:59 pm

      hmm. Associate in Health Science Education (AHSE) in preparation to nursing and then…. Multimedia Arts. haha.

      though i've a lot to be thankful for in Nursing. i've learned valuable social skills.

    4. skysenshi

      June 16, 2010 at 12:52 am

      Here's something astig, too:

      There may be no PHD for the Arts, but there's PHD for Design. (I wish I had gotten my undergrad there…look, under the School of Fine Arts, there is Communication Design. That's waaaaay evolved from Visual Communication. Why didn't these interesting courses appear when I was in college?????

      Oh and get this…Their HCI starts off under the School of Social Sciences for undergrad and becomes under the School of Computer Science for the graduate programs. Now I can actually say that all my skills/degrees are very much related!

      Um…ok, I'm frothing at the mouth again. Sorry.

    5. papaviktor

      June 16, 2010 at 2:14 am

      he won the Puasch award!

      remember the phrase i quoted in my grad speech and the one i gave you when you wrote something about me in the Bump magazine? that was from him – Randy Pausch! Pausch is the pioneer of the course I wanted to take sa Carnegie Mellon, Master in Entertainment Technology…and the first award in honor of Pausch is Catmull…aliw! (amused)

    6. Xiao

      June 24, 2010 at 2:26 pm

      unfinished business

      …[my unfinished] childhood that I still continue to pursue.

      It was fun while it lasted; the laughs, the playtimes, the fun, the practically-everything-else-about-it, and more fun.
      Like everything else that needs a foundation, it was the foothold to my escape, my escape being my “dream”. The short and sweet
      of it is, I cherish my well spent hours and minutes as I enjoyed doing what I did during…

      Regina Supapo

    7. Anonymous

      June 25, 2010 at 1:09 pm

      ablaze of inspiration
      a jewel, it is…


      Januarius Laygo

    8. Xiao

      June 25, 2010 at 4:38 pm


      ps. the visual version (writing on artwork)

      Regina Supapo

    9. Anonymous

      November 3, 2010 at 11:56 am


      just want to ask..would a computer science student be a computer animator,too?

    10. skysenshi

      November 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm

      It can be possible. My undergrad is Social Science but I ended up becoming an interactive designer. Hehe.

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