Animation pioneer Ed Catmull, 73, Pixar co-founder and president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, will retire at the end of the year and serve as consultant through next July, marking his 40th year in the industry.
Simply put, there would be no animation and VFX industries as we know it without Catmull’s visionary tech contributions. Beginning with Pixar’s innovative shorts and ground-breaking “Toy Story” (1995), the first CG feature, he’s literally taken Pixar and Disney to infinity and beyond, serving as Yoda to John Lasseter’s Luke Skywalker, creating a multi-billion dollar industry.
In looking back, the five-time Academy Award tech recipient never anticipated such astounding success: “The goal of making the animated feature was a goal that lasted 20 years,” Catmull told me. “And in the process of getting together people who shared a similar goal, then there was something beside the movie that was created, which was a style and a way of thinking, and people who were always wanting to create something that was new and challenging and different.
“And it was only after ‘Toy Story’ that I could think about it in different terms, and in terms of that creative culture. And the goal was different: How do you make a sustainable culture? Something that is dynamic and unstable? The thing is, I believe strongly, that successful groups are inherently unstable. And so you can’t think of it in terms of: ‘I’m going to grab on to what I’ve got and hang on to it for dear life.’ Rather, if we’re going to keep changing, how do we adapt and modify and bring people in and help people grow and let people do great things, but don’t let us get stuck in the past by always heading off in an exciting direction?”
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Catmull’s early pioneering work in computer animation included his 1972 film, “A Computer Animated Hand,” which broke new ground and has since been inducted into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. In 1979, Catmull was hired by George Lucas to lead Lucasfilm’s computer division (“the rebel unit”), where he recruited Lasseter (fired from Disney) to help make CG shorts with the goal of eventually making CG features.
But Lucas wasn’t interested in animation, so he sold the division to Apple legend Steve Jobs for $10 million, which became Pixar Animation Studios in 1986, led by Catmull and Lasseter. After early years of struggle and failure (with Jobs pouring in $50 million at the outset), Pixar became a powerhouse after “Toy Story.” Twenty features have won 15 Academy Awards and earned more than $13 billion in global box office; its most recent film, “Incredibles 2,” broke records in its debut and is the highest grossing animated film in U.S. box office history ($607.7 million).
Catmull’s association with Disney, meanwhile, goes back to 1986 with Pixar’s work on the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), and Disney has released all of Pixar’s features. Upon The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006, Catmull became president of both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. Since arriving at Disney, he was instrumental in leading the studio’s third renaissance with such mega-hits as “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” and “Moana,” along with the Oscar-winning “Frozen,” “Big Hero Six,” and “Zootopia.”
From the very beginning, though, Catmull instilled a philosophy that married tech with art. CG was not just a tool, it empowered artists and drove visual storytelling. Catmull needed to convince artists and Disney management early on not to fear CG but to fully embrace it. He knew it was going to transform the industry. In this regard, Catmull became the architect of the cutting-edge RenderMan rendering software used widely in both animation and in visual effects, and in its current iteration has advanced total believability as well as creative stylization.
Catmull established a system at Pixar that conquered every conceivable holy grail (commencing with cloth, hair, fire, and water), and a culture built around the aesthetic demands of every movie. When he came to Disney, he first made the mistake of trying to emulate Pixar before realizing that Disney needed to discover its own culture through its legacy. Disney even created its own proprietary renderer, Hyperion.
These days, the goal has been finding ways to increase efficiency and maximize productivity at both studios. But more important, Catmull confronted the larger issues of success and failure while nurturing and empowering a new generation of artists and technologists.
Catmull’s retirement, of course, comes on the heels of Lasseter’s turbulent departure at year’s end as chief creative officer of the two studios after allegations of workplace sexual harassment. But Catmull leaves them in good hands: Pixar president Jim Morris and Walt Disney Animation Studios president Andrew Millstein will continue to oversee operations of their respective studios, reporting to Walt Disney Studios president Alan Bergman. Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios will continue to be creatively led by chief creative officers Pete Docter and Jennifer Lee, respectively, reporting to Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn.
“Never in my wildest imagination could I have conceived of the path or the extraordinary people I have worked with over all of these years – the twists and turns, the ups and downs, along with exhilarating passion, talent, and dedication that have led to something extraordinary, something that has an enduring impact in the world,” Catmull said in a prepared statement.
“From the request of George Lucas to bring technology to the film industry, to the vision of Steve Jobs, and the extraordinary freedom provided by Bob Iger, Alan Horn, and Alan Bergman, we continue to dream of stories and ways of making those stories that always surprise. I have the mixed emotions that come with stepping away from a group of people I love, but also with the utmost pride and pleasure that we now have at both Pixar and Disney Animation the most dedicated and imaginative leaders I have worked with.”