In the fall of 1974, at age 29, Edwin Earl Catmull found himself with a freshly-earned Ph.D. in computer science—and no place to take it.
His thesis, which set out several important innovations in 3-D computer graphics, was a stepping-stone to … nothing, at first. He hoped to land a job doing research on computer animation and, from there, make progress toward his ambition of creating computer-animated feature films. But he couldn’t find that job. Ohio State, which had a small academic group working on computer animation, turned him down for a faculty position.
It was an inauspicious start for the future co-founder of Pixar. A few months later, however, his graduate work on computer graphics and computer animation (including one of his course projects, an animation of a hand) brought him to the attention of an unlikely character: an eccentric multimillionaire who was creating a computer graphics lab on a Long Island estate. Catmull’s two-decade-long journey to Toy Story was underway.
The dissertation itself is mostly tough reading for the uninitiated, as one might expect. Nonetheless, I found it an interesting window into the opening days of 3-D computer graphics, of which Catmull was one of the founding fathers. The techniques he described in the language of mathematics are used today in videogames, special effects, and, of course, computer-animated films.