The Incredible Mr. Ed

By Todd Longwell

When it was announced that Pixar Animation co-founder Ed Catmull would receive this year's Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the motion picture Academy for lifetime achievement in computer graphics, some people might have been confused. Why not John Lasseter? After all, he's the personification of Pixar, its cherubic corporate face, forever dressed in bold print shirts, giving interviews and posing with costumed characters at its films' premieres from 1995's "Toy Story" to last year's "WALL-E."

But Catmull's importance doesn't need to be explained to George Lucas.

"I've had the privilege of knowing Ed Catmull since the late 1970s, a period when computer graphics was in its infancy," Lucas says. "At the time, few people had the foresight and creative vision to even begin to imagine how the technology could shape things to come. Ed's breakthrough innovations have helped define computer graphics and continue to revolutionize them to this day."

One key to Catmull's success has been hiring people he deems even smarter than himself.

"To be smarter than Ed Catmull, you have to be really smart," says Lasseter. "This guy has invented major things in the world of computer animation. But to also be comfortable enough to let great people come in and let them really shine and give them the spotlight -- I was always blown away by that."

Catmull has previously received four technical Oscars for his achievements, which include the development of Pixar's PhotoRealistic Renderman, the industry standard 3-D animation software.

"'(Catmull) gets a lot of accolades, but he gets them from engineering societies and things like that, which aren't in the public eye," says veteran visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund, who chairs the Academy's Scientific and Technical Committee, which bestows the award. "Ed is basically the one who put the team together there at Pixar."

Born in 1945, Catmull was captivated by Disney films such as "Pinocchio" (1940) and "Peter Pan" (1953) in his youth and dreamed of becoming an animator, but he came to realize that his drawing skills weren't good enough. So instead of going to Hollywood, he enrolled in the University of Utah to study physics and computer graphics. While there, he became a protege of professor Ivan Sutherland, inventor of the pioneering computer graphics program Sketchpad. Before long, he was making his own primitive computer animations.

After earning his Ph.D. in 1974, Catmull was hired to head up the Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island. Five years later, show business came calling in the form of Edlund, then working on "Star Wars: Episode V -- The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), who had been sent by Lucas on a fact-finding mission.

"I came back with a glowing report to George, and soon after that, (the lab employees) were all hired en masse," Edlund recalls. "It was kind of a Black Thursday at NYIT."

As vp of the computer division at Lucasfilm, Catmull helped developed the computer animation program Motion Doctor and other pioneering CGI technologies that were eventually used to create sequences for "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" (1982) and "Young Sherlock Holmes" (1985). He also had the foresight to hire Lasseter, a young CalArts graduate who had recently been fired from Disney.

In 1986, Lucas sold the computer division to Steve Jobs -- who had ended his first stint at Apple -- for $5 million. Catmull was named president and CEO of the company, rechristened Pixar, and Lasseter stayed on board as an employee. Today, Catmull serves as president of both the Disney Animation and Pixar Animation studios, with Lasseter serving as chief creative officer.

"Ed is one of the truly great executives, not just in the entertainment business, but in business," says Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook. "He has that ability to bring together very different kinds of people to work together for the good of the movie. You just can't find people that are like him."