30th Birthday of the Engine That Powered the CGI Revolution

❝ When Pixar President and co-founder Ed Catmull announced his retirement earlier this year, people rightly saw his impending departure as a transitional moment for the animation studio. But it’s bigger than that. Catmull’s shadow looms large not just over groundbreaking films like Toy Story and Coco, his influence can be traced all the way back to the dawn of digital visual effects. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Abyss. Terminator 2. Jurassic Park. All of these titles came out before Woody and Buzz Lightyear, yet all remain watershed moments for VFX—and all used the tool that Catmull and his colleagues helped create at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.

RenderMan, as it’s known, came out of ILM’s computer graphics team (the same one that would later spin off into its own company called Pixar). It started as a powerful algorithm, but then became something greater—a graphical interface. “Up until that point,” says Catmull, “the look, the lighting, essentially had to be done by programmers.” A movie like 1982’s Tron might have been mindblowing, but its digital sequences also necessitated an absolutely knee-buckling amount of work, creating its futuristic effects frame by frame. RenderMan, though, allowed effects artists to realize their visions without needing to write code.

CGI Rulez! Most sci-fi geeks would agree. Most would also understand how the threads and techniques reach out into many aspects of today’s film-making regardless of genre. RTFA!