The Early Pixar Innovation Team Comes Together: Alvy Ray Smith Joins Ed Catmull at NYIT
Jay Rao and Jim Watkinson
Many times the seeds of innovation are planted long before the tree takes root and later blossoms into fruit.
Before there was a Pixar, or a Toy Story, before the world knew much about George Lucas, or saw his first Star Wars film, or were amazed by his special effects makers at Industrial Light and Magic, there was a trade school on Long Island, NY, The New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), whose President had a passion to create great animated film, and the money to pursue this goal. As we learned in our last blog article, that man, Alex Schure, hired Ed Catmull in fall 1974 to direct his new computer graphics lab, and soon Ed was joined by his friend and fellow University of Utah graduate, Malcolm Blanchard. As winter of 1974-75 progressed, the small team would benefit from a very short-sighted decision by a major corporation that would lead two other pioneers in computer graphics software to join them.
Turning back the clock.
As he lay on his hospital bed in a full body cast contemplating the ceiling tiles, Alvy Ray Smith had plenty of time to think (the result of a broken leg from a skiing accident). After receiving his PhD. in computer science in 1970, he had spent the last few years as an associate professor teaching computer science at New York University. Though he enjoyed teaching, Smith felt a sense of dissatisfaction. There were very few people in his very specialized niche in the computer field, making it hard to even find someone to talk to. At a deeper level, Smith whose first love was art, found himself missing the personal satisfaction that comes from artistic creation. He was also disturbed that at this early stage in the development of computer technology, the leading work in the field was being driven by military requirements. This left him feeling that his teaching was contributing to things he could never support. He couldn’t continue this way.
With no particular plan in mind, in late 1973, Smith decided to leave his teaching position and set out for California, confident that something would develop. From his prior experience as a graduate student at Stanford, he was drawn to the San Francisco area as a hot bed for people aiming to develop the next wave of technology. After several months, he found himself with a writing project that required research at Stanford’s library. This was a long drive from where he was staying, but it was close to his friend, Dick Shoup, in Palo Alto. Shoup agreed to let Smith stay at his place, and soon their conversations turned to Shoup’s favorite subject: the SuperPaint project he was working on at the nearby Xerox Palo Alto research center known as PARC.
Although Shoup had tried unsuccessfully to interest Smith in SuperPaint earlier in the year, now upon seeing a system where he could draw color images with a stylus on a tablet, or manipulate existing video and still images, all while seeing them on the computer screen in full form (a first at the time for raster images), Smith was amazed and spellbound. He knew he was looking at the future, and came back a few days later to spend the whole day working with the system. Later he would remember this and remark “Art and computers, I was in heaven.” He had found his next thing.
Shoup needed help testing his new system and Smith’s artistic understanding and computer background were a perfect fit. PARC management could not see the need for hiring a computer artist, so Shoup’s colleague, Alan Kay (another incredible innovator who shaped the future of computing) arranged for Smith to be paid each week through purchase orders like a vendor. As a result, in August 1974, Smith had a new, but unofficial profession he would later describe as artist-in-residence at PARC.
The capabilities that allowed SuperPaint to work were the result of a computer board Shoup had made by hand to expand memory and modify the operation of a mini-computer. This modified computer was called a frame buffer, and through Shoup’s efforts, Xerox PARC was the first to be able to create color computer imagery and modify existing video or TV images.
To promote the capability of SuperPaint, from fall of 1974 into the early winter of 1975, Smith, and fellow computer art devotee David DiFrancesco, pushed Shoup’s computer paint system, with Smith using its color palate, custom shapes, and virtual brushes to make demonstration videos that portrayed motion, while mixing shapes and colors. Each image gave him new ideas, and he began to modify the software by creating controls that allowed the user to blend colors as an artist would do when actually working with real paints on a canvas.
Their work came to a sudden halt in January 1975 when Smith was told that a corporate decision had been made to drop work on color images because they didn’t fit with the Xerox corporate plan for the office of the future. Management had decided to focus only on black and white images for their business customers and was ending the project for SuperPaint software and its frame buffer hardware.
For Smith and DiFrancesco the news wasn’t just a loss of work, PARC was the only place that had a frame buffer. Unless they could find someone who had one, their experimentations were over. Smith immediately went to work on the phone and he learned that the University of Utah would soon be receiving the first commercially made frame buffer. The two were off to Utah.
When they arrived at the University, it was clear that art and computers weren’t exactly a fit at the University of Utah computer department, where most research was being funded by a military agency. There would be no role for them here, but speaking with PhD candidate Martin Newel (maker of the famous early CG image: Newel’s teapot), the two seekers heard about the wealthy school president who had recently ordered one of every type of CG equipment made by famous professors David Evans and Ivan Sutherland, including a frame buffer, for his new computer graphics lab. Newell mentioned he would be visiting this new lab at the New York Institute of Technology in a few days, and promised to call Smith and DiFrancesco with more information upon his return. Several days later Newel called Smith to describe how he was impressed with Shure’s research and animation plans, and to suggest that Smith and DiFrancesco could be needed there. Moving quickly, the duo were off again on their quest, this time across the country to this potential land of CG bliss. To open the door for them, Newell phoned the NYIT Computer Graphics Lab and told Ed Catmull about the two knowledgeable computer artists he was sending over to him.
The two computer seekers were in for a surprise when they arrived at the CG Lab. Knowing the incredible amount of advanced equipment on order, Smith and DiFrancesco were expecting to see a large staff busily at work, but when they walked in they found only Ed Catmull and colleague Malcolm Blanchard. After describing Shure’s plans for animated film, and exchanging views about the many uncertain problems to be overcome, Catmull knew that the lab needed the brainpower that Smith and DiFrancesco could deliver. After they all met with Shure, he agreed to add the newcomers to the team.
With Catmull, Smith, Blanchard, and DiFrancesco together, a core group was formed that would work together for most of the next 15 years, advancing the art and science of computer graphics and becoming founders of Pixar.
Through the next few years, the Computer Graphics Lab team would grow, and produce many key innovations for digital images and animation A brief list of some of these would include software for a computer to automatically generate the frames between key frames of action. Called Tween, and developed by Ed Catmull, this innovation significantly cut down on the labor needed to produce animation. Alvy Ray Smith would create the Alpha Channel, a way to combine separate image elements into one image. The list of firsts achieved at NYIT is so long that years later, Ed Catmull tried to recollect the achievements during this period and had to stop at four pages.
Although Shure was boundless in his support of the computer graphics group, many important components of film-making were missing at NYIT, such as story development and directing. Catmull and Smith recognized this problem and knew they would have to find a way to build a relationship with a film studio if they were to ever break into the business of animated films. With this in mind, the two men visited several Hollywood studios each year to showcase their latest abilities and convince them of the value that CG could contribute to their movies. Doing a quick calculation of computer costs verses their estimate of the computing power needed to make a complete animated film, Catmull and Smith recognized it would be 15 years before animated film production costs would come down to affordable levels. As a result, the two focused their conversations with studio people on how their new CG tools and techniques could be used to improve the production and portrayal of their film stories.
As the king of animated films, the Walt Disney studio was always their prime target, and over the next few years, Catmull and Smith would regularly try to convince people there that their team’s advances in CG could be used to create a system for computerizing the coloring of their animation frames (inking and painting) and also seamlessly combine multiple image layers to produce a 3-dimensional look. This would bring Disney animations back to the rich, colorful texture seen in the studio’s famous earlier films, while also allowing for more complex scenes and engaging stories.
The capability such a system could contribute would be a leap forward in the audience experience delivered with animated movie-making, but it was new, untried and coming from people with no experience in film-making. They were also pitching the idea to a company that was very different from its days under Walt Disney. The openness to adapting new technology that had been a key to Disney success while co-founder Walt Disney was alive had ended with Disney’s passing. The Walt Disney Company of the 1970’s had become a giant enterprise on the strength of the huge success of its theme parks, from which it derived most of its revenue, and the lion share of its profits.
Animated films had always been a hit or miss adventure, even during Walt’s days. Now, having finally achieved strong and consistent revenue and profits flowing from the parks, company leadership, which had no experience with animated film-making, saw no need to invest in new and risky film-making ideas. The stagnation this produced at the Disney animation studio had reached the point where its films, while producing modest profits, all followed the same formula, repeating similar storylines, and even reusing characters and scenes from prior films.
Down at the studio level, there were deeper concerns about computers. With all the change these machines were beginning to cause in other industries, there was a strong fear among the animators that they were intended to replace people. Drawn to their work by a love for the process of putting heart and soul into their film characters, they scoffed at the idea that a machine could bring a character to life as they did, and they would have nothing to do with computers.
This same feeling about the evils of computers was shared at all the studios in Hollywood, and Catmull and Smith could find no one willing to take a chance on employing computer systems in a way that would push the art of their cinema product. The idea of art itself was a key ingredient in this rejection. Everyone involved in film-making saw their product as a form of high art, but art is something made by people, people with deep feelings to be portrayed in characters and a story that sweeps the audience along on a shared journey. Machines, such as computers, have no feelings or experiences to share; they could only deaden the art of film. Clearly, there were many reasons why computers and film were a mismatch at this time for most Hollywood movie-makers.
Finding no doors open at Disney animation, Catmull and Smith would use their visits to speak with the only people at Disney that were interested in computers and technology: the department of Scientific Systems. Here, computers were used to control park safety, and in the operation of the rides and automated shows. Working with this department didn’t exactly match their goal to gain access to film-makers, but perhaps working with one part of the Disney enterprise would help one day to open the door into animation. But even among the operations people who already worked with computers, Catmull and Smith were warned that things here move only very slowly. These comments would prove to be very prophetic, as it would take another seven years, and a complete change in Disney leadership, before Disney and the future Pixar team would strike a deal for a computer system to improve animation production.
Dear reader, below are a few things to consider and reflect about this blog:
- The incumbents will reject and marginalize new technologies / disruptive business models. Here we have described Xerox, Disney, & Hollywood’s way of rejecting a technology that would later transform not just business and film imagery, but also transform all medium of imagery.
- Innovators are fired by incumbents for being heretics. As we see here, Alvy Ray Smith’s project for color computer graphics was ended at Xerox PARC because it did not fit the orthodoxy of the corporate vision for the office of the future.
- Who are the heretics inside your firm? How are they treated? How can we identify them? How do we create a “sandbox” for them to play?
 Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation, by Tom Sito, MIT Press 2013
 Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation, by Tom Sito, MIT Press 2013
 Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, by Michael Rubin, Triad Pub Co, 2005
 Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation, by Tom Sito, MIT Press 2013, p 130-132
 Walt’s People: Vol 11, by Didier Ghez, Xilibris Corp., 2011