24 Nov 2014

Pixar co-founder, Alvy Ray Smith

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 24 November 2014
Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith

Pixar co-founder, Alvy Ray Smith Photo: Alvy Ray Smith

When Alvy Ray Smith began working with computers in 1965 they were so big they took up entire rooms. It was the year that Gordon E Moore, the founder of the Intel Corporation came up with the theory known as Moore's Law, on the exponential increase of the power and abilities of computers every five years. Alvy Ray Smith and his colleagues took note.

Alvy Ray Smith produced his first computer graphic that same year, a geometric spiral for a weather satellite. After his PhD he worked for Xerox, which he said was the luckiest break in his life, as the company was in the process of inventing the personal computer. Alvy Ray Smith worked on the graphics programme Superpaint for Xerox,  which heralded the dawn of the computer graphics industry.

it was like being the first explorers on a new continent

In the mid 1970's he joined the new Computer Graphics Laboratory at New York Institute of Technology, where he met Ed Catmull, who would become his Pixar co-founder.

Together they set up Lucasfilm's computer division and Alvy Ray Smith directed the first ever feature film sequence using computer graphics - for Star Trek the Wrath of Khan in 1982.

In 1984 Alvy Ray Smith directed the world's first computer animated short film The Adventures of André and Wally B  which introduced animator John Lasseter to the world. The Lucasfilm computer division evolved into Pixar in 1986 which went on to make celebrated animated films such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Up.

But it was the involvement of Steve Jobs, who funded Pixar, that Alvy Ray Smith said drove him out. He said Jobs is a bully, who once berated him for using his whiteboard and implied he himself was the creative genius behind Pixar and its movies, when it was in fact Ed Catmull.

Alvy Ray Smith left Pixar in 1991, and Jobs went on to take the company public and sold it to Disney for 7.4 billion US dollars.

Mr Smith went on to cofound Altamira Software Corporation, which was brought by Microsoft in 1994. He became Microsoft's first Graphics fellow.

He will be visiting New Zealand early next month as a guest of the US Embassy and Auckland University of Technology to deliver a lecture Technology & entertainment: From Pixel to Pixar and Beyond.

He says under Moore's law it is clear by 2025 computers will be trillions of times more powerful than they were back in 1965. And rather than simply watching a film, we may be fully immersed in three dimensional universes happening in real time.

Alvy Ray Smith talks to Kathryn Ryan about his career, and the future of the computer graphics industry.