Edwin Earl Catmull is a computer scientist and retired president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. He is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Catmull was born in Parkersburg, West Virginia, on March 31, 1945. As a youth, he yearned to be an animator and created flipbooks to imitate animated cartoons. Because he thought it unlikely that he could achieve his dream, he studied physics and computer science at the University of Utah instead. After he graduated, he worked at The Boeing Company in Seattle and the New York Institute of Technology. In 1970, he returned to the University of Utah for graduate school. At the U of U, he was a student of Ivan Sutherland.
Catmull believed Sutherland’s computer drawing program Sketchpad and the new field of computer graphics as a major component in the future of animation. From that point, his main goal and ambition was to make a computer-animated movie. As a student in the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) program, he made two new fundamental computer graphics discoveries: texture mapping and bicubic patches. He invented algorithms for spatial anti-aliasing and refining subdivision surfaces. He independently discovered Z-buffering, unaware that Wolfgang Straßer had described it eight months before in his PhD dissertation.
In 1972, Catmull created an animated version of his left hand, which was picked up by a Hollywood producer and incorporated in the 1976 movie Futureworld, the first film to use 3D computer graphics. It was eventually known as A Computer Animated Hand and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011.
After Catmull earned his PhD in 1974, he worked for a company called Applicon. A few months later, he became director of the new computer graphics lab at New York Institute of Technology. He formed a team that focused on tools that could assist animators in their work. The group invented PAINT, TWEEN, SoftCell, and other programs. They eventually left 2D animation and started concentrating on 3D computer graphics, and motion picture production.
Catmull’s team caught the attention of Hollywood directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Lucas approached Catmull in 1979 and asked him to head up a group to bring computer graphics, video editing, and digital audio into the entertainment field. Catmull left New York Institute of Technology and in 1979 became the vice president at the computer graphics division at Lucasfilm. He helped develop digital image compositing technology. After Steve Jobs bought Lucasfilm’s digital division in 1986, Catmull cofounded Pixar and became its chief technical officer. At Pixar, he was key in developing the RenderMan system used in films such as Toy Story, the first of 20 Pixar features which have collectively won 15 Academy Awards and earned more than $13 million in world wide box office, and others such as Finding Nemo, Incredibles, and Monster's Inc. The technology has helped computer generated movies mature beyond simulating relatively simple objects such as plastic toys to more complex physical phenomena like rippling fur or splashing water.
Disney purchased Pixar in 2006 and Catmull joined John Lasseter to revitalize Disney’s animation studio. He led the animation division until his retirement in 2019.
Catmull won five of the Motion Picture Academy's Scientific and Technical Awards, including the Gordon E. Sawyer Award. In 1993 he won an Academy of Motion Pictures Scientific and Technical Award for the development of PhotoRealistic RenderMan software. In 1996 and 2001 he won awards for pioneering invention in Digital Image Compositing. In 2009 at the 81st Academy Awards, he was awarded the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, which honors individuals in the motion picture industry “whose technical contributions have brought credit to the industry.”
In 1995, he was inducted as a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. He was awarded with the IEEE John von Neumann medal for “pioneering contributions to the field of computer graphics in modeling, animation, and rendering.” Catmull’s pioneering research on graphics earned him the highest honor in computing, the Association for Computer Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award, seen as the field’s equivalent to a Nobel Prize. He shared the prize and the $1 million prize money with Patrick Hanrahan, a fellow computer graphics researcher he recruited to the founding team of Pixar in 1986. They were honored for inventing computer generated techniques that transformed Hollywood and have shaped other forms of entertainment such as videogames and virtual reality.
In 2014, Catmull, along with Amy Wallace, authored the book Creativity, Inc., about the management skills he learned during the course of his career.
Catmull and his wife Susan have three children and live in Marin County, California.