1.2 Developer Profile: Edwin Catmull

By Chou Khamkeuang

Edwin Earl Catmull born March 31, 1945 in Parkersburg, West Virginia is a retired computer scientist. He is also the co-founder and former president of Pixar and former president Walt Disney Animation Studios. In 2019, he received the Turing Award, with Pat Hanrahan for their pioneering work in computer-generated imagery (CGI) (“Edwin Catmull”, 2020).

Ed Catmull’s work has had a revolutionary impact on the film industry, which paved way for a new genre of film based entirely on computer animated imagery. 3-D computer imagery also played a central role in the video gaming industry, virtual reality, and augmented reality .

In 1970, he earned his B.S. degrees in Physics and Computer Science, and his PhD in Computer Science from the University of Utah in 1974.

Catmull became interested in digital imaging and making digitally realistic films when he was a student of Ivan Sutherland who designed Sketchpad which pioneered the way for HCI, and known as the “father of computer graphics”.

In his PhD thesis, he introduced groundbreaking techniques for displaying curved patches instead of polygons, specifically, two new fundamental computer-graphics discoveries: Z-buffering, which was also described by Wolfgang Strasser at the time, and texture mapping.

In 1972, he made an animation of his left hand which was featured in the 1972 movie Futureworld. Futureworld was the first film to use 3D computer graphics.

Catmull struggled in his early career at Computer Graphics lab to translate 2D animation to film. George Lucas heard about this and reached out to Catmull in 1979. Catmull was asked to contribute with his group to bring computer graphics, video editing, and digital audio into the entertainment field. Catmull eventually became the Vice President at Industrial Light & Magic computer graphics division at Lucasfilm.

In 1986, Steve Jobs bought Lucasfilm’s digital division, and founded Pixar. At Pixar, Catmull, Hanrahan, and others founded RenderMan, which renders 3D animated movies. Some of those movies that used Renderman include Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Toy Story, Jurassic Park, Avatar, Titanic, the Star Wars prequels, and The Lord of the Rings (“Pixar Renderman”, 2020). Renderman remains the standard software for CGI visual effects.

Pixar was then acquired by Disney in 2006. In 2007, Catmull and John Lasseter oversaw Disneytoon Studios.


1993 – Received Academy Scientific and Technical Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the development of PhotoRealistic RenderMan software 

1996 – Received Academy Scientific and Technical Award for pioneering inventions in Digital Image Compositing

2001 – Received an Oscar “for significant advancements to the field of motion picture rendering as exemplified in Pixar’s RenderMan”

2006 –  IEEE John von Neumann Medal for pioneering contributions to the field of computer graphics in modeling, animation, and rendering

2008 – The 81st Academy Awards’ Gordon E. Sawyer Award. Award for “an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry”

2019 – Received Turing Award with Pat Hanrahan


Association for Computing Machinery. (2020, March 18). Pioneers of Modern Computer Graphics Recognized with ACM A.M. Turing Award. https://awards.acm.org/about/2019-turing

Edwin Catmull. (2020, March 25). Wikipedia. Retrieved March 25, 2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Catmull

Pixar Renderman. (2020, March22). Wikipedia. Retrieved March 25, 2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pixar_RenderMan