2019 Turing Award Honors Computer Graphics Pioneers Hanrahan and Catmull

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The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) this morning announced Patrick M. (Pat) Hanrahan and Edwin E. (Ed) Catmull as the winners of the 2019 Turing Award. Computing’s highest honor went to the duo for “fundamental contributions to 3D computer graphics and the revolutionary impact of these techniques on computer-generated imagery (CGI) in film and other applications.

“You can’t pass!” If your palms sweat when Gandalf confronts Balrog in The Lord of the Rings; if “To infinity… and beyond!” from Buzz Lightyear! resonates in your childhood memories; if the jurassic park velociraptors still give chills; then you owe those iconic moments of fantasy to the groundbreaking 3D computer graphics innovations of Hanrahan and Catmull, which continue to inform the CGI techniques used in the film industry today.

Catmull received his doctorate in computer science from the University of Utah in 1974. He is the former president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. Hanrahan, an early Pixar employee, earned his doctorate in biophysics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a professor in the computer graphics lab at Stanford University.

Catmull and Hanrahan’s work ushered in a new genre of fully computer-animated feature films with the world’s first computer-animated feature film, 1995 toy story.

One of the revolutionary techniques developed by Catmull is Z-buffer, which can be used to determine image depth coordinates in computer graphics to decide which parts of an object should be visible on screen. Another critical technique he introduced is texture mappingwhich wraps 2D surface textures around 3D objects to make computer-generated graphics more realistic.

Hanrahan joined Pixar in 1986 and was the lead architect of the company’s new graphics system. In 1990, he published an article presenting his RenderMan research at ACM SIGGRAPH. RenderMan separates light reflection behavior from geometric shapes and calculates the color, transparency and texture of generated images, and enables filmmakers to render photorealistic animations in real scenes with vivid detail.

The RenderMan system has become the standard workflow for CGI visual effects and is the first-ever software to win an Oscar, in the category of Scientific and Technical Achievement. RenderMan has been used in 44 of the last 47 Oscar-nominated films in the Visual Effects category, including Avatar, Titanic, Beauty and the Beast, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Star Wars prequels, and more.

Hanrahan moved from Pixar to college in 1989, taking positions at Princeton and Stanford universities. In the 1990s, he and his students developed programming languages ​​for GPUs that revolutionized video game writing and eventually led to NVIDIA’s CUDA.

ACM Turing Award was created in 1966 to recognize individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the IT industry. The prestigious award is widely called the “Nobel Price in the IT industry” and is accompanied of one million US dollars offered by Google. The award is named after the British mathematician Alan M. Turing, whose work laid the foundations of computer science and artificial intelligence.

The 2019 Turing Award is scheduled for the ACM’s annual awards banquet on June 20 in San Francisco, California. There has been no official statement from the organizers regarding the event in regards to the COVID-19 outbreak. Synchronized will update readers as information becomes available.


Journalist: Fangyu Cai | Editor: Michel Sarazen

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