Pixel Pioneer: Interview with Pixar Cofounder Alvy Ray Smith

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13.50 2 Dec 2013

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Pixel Pioneer: Interview with...

Pixel Pioneer: Interview with Pixar Cofounder Alvy Ray Smith


13.50 2 Dec 2013

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Newstalk Magazine is available now for free from the Apple app store.

We live in a time where entire industries get turned upside-down, reshaped, born and destroyed practically overnight, catalyzed by technology which is getting exponentially more powerful every few years. It’s a time where innovation and creativity are the tools for survival, where curious minds and dogged determination will thrive and shape the world to come.  With this in mind I spoke to former Director of Computer Graphics Research at Lucasfilm, Pixar Cofounder and legendary computer animation pioneer, Dr. Alvy Ray Smith about his remarkable career, and the future of film.

“First, I have to comment on your use of the word "film." It seems so quaint. There is (or is about to be) no more film” Smith began. “There's no more tape either. I'm writing a book now (a long way from completion, sadly) on a biography of the pixel. I talk there about the Great Digital Convergence that just happened around the millennium. All old media types coalesced at that time into one, namely bits”.


Smith sees himself as part artist, scientist and technologist, “I learned to paint from my artist uncle. His only rule was that I had to be absolutely silent. So I watched and learned how to stretch canvas, prepare, mix colors, care for brushes, layout a painting and build it up.” In school Smith excelled in Math and Physics, and when computers came along he “fell in love”. 

“I was also an animation aficionado. I taught myself animation, as have many, from the great Preston Blair's $1.50 how-to book.” In 1973, whilst laid up for three months with a broken femur following a skiing accident, (a time he has described as “one of the most wonderful of my life”), Smith had time to re-think his life, and concluded he was failing to do anything about his artistic skills; and was only “feeding the Vietnam war machine”.  When the cast came off he went to California in the hope that "something good would happen", and in 1974, aged 31, he hit the jackpot.

“I stumbled into Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, the place where computation as we now practice it was being crafted—the personal computer, window-based user interface, the mouse, laser printer, Ethernet, and color graphics (the last one being my bit). A friend of mine, Dick Shoup, was there and he and Alan Kay got me hired, with a purchase order, to artistically exploit Dick's new paint hardware and software, called SuperPaint, the first paint program in the world. I went nuts”.  

With Shoup’s tools and his knowledge of painting and animation he set about writing code and inventing computer animation as we now know it. “It was pursuing all this that eventually led to Pixar. My animation love was what bonded me with John Lasseter, Pixar's star animator, and the best hire of my life.” Lasseter is now Chief Creative Officer at Pixar and Disney. 

Sunstone, Alvy Ray Smith & Ed Emshwiller (1979).  Smith’s proudest piece can still be seen in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

After a productive year, and imbued with new ideas, he left Xerox PARC and headed East to join the pioneering New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Research team where, in 1975, he met future Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull, and began a partnership that would last 20 years and revolutionise the motion picture industry.

Smith (right) and Ed Catmull (left), just after their arrival at Lucasfilm c1980. The lamp between the two would become famous when animated by John Lasseter as Luxo Jr. (and in the Pixar logo).

“There was a cel animation team of about 100 people there when we (Ed Catmull, myself, and several others) arrived. We learned how animation production works [and] that's when we decided we would be the first group ever to make a completely digital feature film. It only took us 20 years to do it!

“It was that single-minded goal, pursued through thick and thin, that made it appear that we were leading innovators. Actually, we were simply a magnet for the most creative programmers in the country, who found their way to us, just wanting to be a part of it. Without much guidance, these creative folks simply invented what had to be invented to make a digital animated movie. They would look around and find something that needed to be done - then do it.

“These were very exciting times. The talent was incredible. The goal was realistic (at least we thought so). The world trooped to our doorstep to see what we were doing, because nobody had seen anything like it yet. We tried not to go to sleep, because we might miss something.”

Early RGB (full 24-bit pixels) art, created by Smith in 1977. "It looks rather ordinary today. Then it was a mind-blower."

“There were low times too, usually having to do with money and power”, he recalled, likely referring to well documented personal clashes with Pixar investor Steve Jobs, who Smith has described as “a bully, a tyrant and a liar”.  Pixar looked set to fail before Jobs injected $50m of his own money, and took the company public, effectively saving it from bankruptcy and turning it into one of the most valuable movie companies in the world.  He doesn’t dwell on this long, swiftly returning to the highs, “we all embarked on a grand adventure to a new land. Everything we touched was new. We got to pick all the low-hanging fruit and name everything. We got used to blowing people's minds."

Computer Graphics Group at Lucasfilm. Smith (centre) controlling the remote shutter. Ed Catmull to his right, new hire, John Lasseter, on his left.

Computers today are 1 billion times more powerful than they were when Smith made his first computer graphic in 1965, a fact supported by Moore’s Law, which he frequently refers to. Having been at the heart of the digital film revolution, Smith is well placed to predict what may happen next.

“There are lots of true believers in computer-land. Many believe that computers will become as intelligent as human beings and even transcend us.  A corresponding claim among the computer graphics folks is that any day now actors will be replaced with computer simulations. I don't believe this anymore than I do AI [Artificial Intelligence, will happen] in my lifetime. We haven't a clue what consciousness is, for starters. Surely to simulate a human actor with a computer, we must have a model of consciousness?”

He is confident however, that we will soon be seeing realistic looking “avatars”, powered by human actors. 

“One reason I believe this is that it's already happened. It seems to have gone almost unheralded. ‘The Strange Case of Benjamin Button’ features scenes of Brad Pitt that are not Brad Pitt, but a computer-generated avatar of him. I knew this going into the movie, so went in eagle-eyed, prepared to catch the telltale giveaway signs. I failed. Rather the producers succeeded. I had to have the scenes pointed out to me. That's the Turing Test of digital actors.

“Animators convince us that stacks of polygons (or pencil sketches in the old days) are alive and conscious, and suffer pain. Thus all that's missing are the completely realistic looking avatars, as animated characters to be driven by the actors/animators.  By the way, Pixar hires animators by how well they act. The holy grail is a completely computer-generated ‘live-action’ film.”

When asked if he thought the old maxim is true, and that ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’, he dismisses it saying, “There are tremendously good movies being made. I do cringe every time I see yet another movie that seems centered only on gratuitous in-your-face 3D computer graphics. I suppose we have to get it out of our system”.

Despite his troubled relationship with Steve Jobs, one can’t help but see the parallels that brought these two men together; art and technology (and business) colliding, combusting, and in the process propelling Pixar to extraordinary heights.  As Jobs himself famously stated, “technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing”.  And therein surely lies the next innovation that will turn our worlds, and our movie theatres upside down. 

Equilibrium, 1981 (Lucasfilm) - "Yet another early exploration of what you could do with full RGB. The Chinese is my name. I visited China in 1978 and came back full of love for Chinese calligraphy. This piece is what I call one of my "one-frame movies" - because I directed it, using bits and pieces provided by others (and some by myself). It would take a list, like a movie, to show everyone involved. I can remember some of the contributors: Rob Cook had just mastered the look of metallic objects, so the two pots are his. The fractal plants are mine (‘graftals’ I called them). The flower was painted by a visitor, a woman whose name I can't remember. Composition is mine. The "signature" is mine. I was off exploring the concept of a new form of art, which I called "composing." It's still not been really exploited." Alvy Ray Smith

This article was written by Aidan Cassidy, former Head of Digital Content, Communicorp. Now Owner at Creature Content Marketing.

This article originally appeared in Newstalk Magazine for iPad in July, for more details go here.

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