Legendary 3D Artist and CGI pioneer talks Pixar, animation and Steve Jobs.

We live in a time where entire industries get turned upside-down, reshaped, born and destroyed practically overnight, catalysed 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”.

Pixar team early years

Pictured: Alvy Ray Smith (centre holding remote), Ed Catmull (left of Alvy Ray Smith) and the early founding team at Pixar

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”.

Xerox Parc

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.