He sold one company to Steve Jobs, one to Bill Gates and now dreams of seeing avatars take over the roles of movie actors

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The average teenager holds an incredible number (like, millions and millions) of pixels in their pockets on their mobile devices. Yet, many are unaware of what pixels are. Dr Alvy Ray Smith, co-founder of computer animation film studio Pixar, would like to change that. But he's a bit busy being at the forefront of the digital revolution. Idealog caught up with him via the telephone this week.

Even the movie afficionados among us mostly grapple with the world of pixels, polygons and frames-per-second. That worries Dr Alvy Ray Smith, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios (think Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Ratatouille and others), who is already dreaming way beyond pixels to avatars coming alive in real movies, animated to look so real they become 'humans' on celluloid. The beauty is we won’t even notice they are not humans.

 “That’s my personal holy grail. I believe we will see, absolutely convincingly, beings on screens that are not human beings but are computer-generated avatars. We are getting closer all the time, and major work is being done in New Zealand, including  by [Dr] Mark Sagar in New Zealand.”

Sagar, now director for Auckland University's Laboratory for Animate Technologies, was previously with Wellington-based Weta Digital, where he gained international attention for his work on Spiderman 2, King Kong and Avatar.

Smith is impressed by Sagar’s work, saying the last time he was in New Zealand, the two met up and Smith was highly impressed by Sagar’s ability to simulate human emotions and expressions.

Smith himself is not short of historic achievements, having various highly-complex (and incomprehensible-to-the-pixel-rookie) animation inventions to his credit, including the HSV full-color paint programme, the Colour Transform effect, and the alpha channel (a system which allows pixels to be transparent should be merged with another pixel).

Alvy Ray Smith: "We are swimming in billions of pixels." 

He has also won two technical Academy awards, written numerous papers on computer graphics, and he owns four patents. He holds a PhD in computer science from Stanford University.

Smith is a bit concerned most of us don’t have a clue what pixels are. Because if we don’t know what pixels are, how can we fathom the revolution shaking the digital world?

“People don’t seem to understand what’s a pixel. Yet we are swimming in billions of pixel. I carry several millions in my pocket, you carry millions in your pocket. It is one of the most important ideas of our time.”

The shock of the digital revolution

His message to businesses is if you can understand the digital revolution, you can build great businesses, even make a billion dollars. What’s tricky however is this change is so revolutionary, humans are not going to find it easy making sense of it all.

Using Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s 1965 observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years, Smith demonstrates the scope of change we can expect in the digital universe.

“This is the message I want to get across: this might seem ordinary, but the size of the revolution is still growing. I made my first computer graphic in 1965; as we know, according to Moore’s law, anything good about computers gets better every five years. Since I have been making computer graphics, computers have gotten better one billion times.”

Typical human beings struggle coming to terms with what it means to reach the factor of 10, he says. 

“We have reached nine orders of magnitude since I made my first computer graphics in 1965, and there are at least 15 more years to go that we know off, and probably more beyond that.”

And 15 more years, according to Smith, is at least three orders of magnitude, and after each order of magnitude everything needs to be reconceptualised.

“By 2025, we will be using computers one trillion [times] more powerful than when I started in 1965. I think people don’t understand how monstrously revolutionary digital revolution has been and still is.”

It might be a while ago, but the memories are still fond around Smith’s pre-Pixar years. Then, he and a bunch of geeks, creative types and computer graphic pioneers, worked on their computer animation dream at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) in the Computer Graphics Lab, funded by wealthy American entrepreneur Alexander Shure.

It was the 1970s and the NYIT was not quite your ordinary “institute”, but one of several mansions on Long Island. 

“It was the part of Long Island that the Great Gatsby was about – it was like waking up to a fairytale. I felt like I was in a movie every day. We had a wonderful time, people were working round all night, nobody wanted to go to sleep because every time you go to sleep, you miss something.” 

Their post-Lucas Film office has been described by one writer as being a cross between a "dorm and an acid trip". Smith laughs when asked about it, noting that those were historic days because there was so much buzz around what the group was doing with computer graphics.

How do you manage such a workplace? It is important, he says, when managing creative and technical people, to ensure the culture fosters mutual respect for the two different types of minds at work. “Our artistic and creative people needed and respected each other so much the mutual admiration society was fostered and accomplished, and I am very proud of that.”

How do you build that culture? “I guess, I don’t know that you can actually manage it. You establish it from top down, you hire people who were naturally there, and you don’t actually think about it.”

Dr Smith and his Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull later went on to spearhead Lucas Film’s computer division. There Dr Smith worked on ground-breaking technology, especially with the Genesis scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Things didn’t work well at Lucas Film after the breakup of George Lucas’ marriage, so Dr Smith and Catmull moved on to start Pixar (which is named after what it does – making pictures).

There is a story which tells how the bosses at Lucas Film pressured Smith and Catmull to trim down staff numbers in their division. Asked to present a list of the people to go, they turned in two names – their own. 

Pixar, Steve Jobs and the Luxo lamp

Pixar was capitalised with US$10 million from Apple founder Steve Jobs, who had by then been kicked out of his company. Half of that money was used to buy exclusive rights to use the technology the group had developed while they were part of Lucas Film.

In Pixar’s early years, it ran into financial struggles. Smith remembers how they were waiting for computer processing power (Moore's law) to catch up with what they wanted to do in animation. They built the Pixar image computer to get cashflow. “I won’t say we built it successfully, but we did it, and kept the place alive.”

“When we started, the PCs weren’t fast enough to make movies yet. We knew we needed another five years. PCs needed to be fast enough for us to make money. We were waiting for Moore’s law to catch up to us.”

Pixar’s financial woes didn’t ease and Jobs, according to reports, sank about US$40m of his fortune into the company to keep it going.

By the time computational power increased and Pixar movies could be made cheaply, Disney approached Pixar to make a movie – Toy Story. The rest is history. Disney eventually bought Pixar for over US$7 billion in 2006.

What about the jumping lamp that makes a squeaky noise that has become Pixar’s logo? How did that come about? Dr Smith says that was created by an animator called John Lasseter, whom Dr Smith describes as “the best hire of my life”. Lasseter had been fired by Disney and picked up by Lucas Film's computer division.

“The way I like to put it, he was the missing ingredient to our group that started in Long Island in the mid-70s. John was in front of his animation colleague and they didn’t understand what computers could possible do.

“He was sitting around his desk, at Lucas film at this time. He happened to see his desk lamp, whose trade name was Luxo and thought ‘That’s it, I will bring Luxo to life’. There was a parent Luxo and a child Luxo, and people realised it as a parent and a child.

“He was able to invest an inanimate object with life – that’s to convince his colleagues that you could do this with polygons instead of drawing some paper; that became so tied to us when the Pixar logo came. John added the lamp coming out, stomping on the ‘I’. That became one of our huge successes; that was what grabbed people emotionally. Before that, people couldn’t see that pictures have emotional qualities.”

What's ironical is, Lasseter had been hired by Dr Smith after he had been fired by Disney because they did not allow him to work on animation. Later he rejoined Disney, working on Toy Story and many other Disney projects.

Selling to two of the world's richest blokes, parting ways with Jobs

Asked why he left Pixar just when Toy Story was about to be made, Dr Smith says he didn’t want to work around Steve Jobs anymore.

“I didn’t like that guy, I left to get rid of him in my life,” he says, adding he left after he had made sure all things were in place for Pixar to make a success of Toy Story.

There are ample stories of them blowup over a whiteboard. Smith's version, can be watched in this interview.

Dr Smith went on to create another company, Altamira Software, where he introduced the concept of image objects to PCs. Altamira was later bought by Microsoft, where Dr Smith worked until 1999.

“I like to joke that I sold my two companies to two of the richest man in the world – the first to Jobs, the second to Bill Gates."

Life after Microsoft

Today, he is an avid genealogist and retains his passion for photography.

Photography, Dr Smith says, “is the art form of my time”. His love for photos was sparked by a chance encounter at a museum in New York, of a piece of work by Ansel Adams called Moonrise, Hernandez.

“When I saw the piece, I knew whoever made this photo knows New Mexico, knows the secrets of New Mexico. One of the pieces in my collection is Moonrise, Hernandez.” says Dr Smith, whose hometown is New Mexico.

Dr Smith’s will be in New Zealand on Dec 3 and 4 (in Auckland and Wellington), to launch Project Connect where he will give a keynote presentation: Technology & Entertainment: From Pixel to Pixar and Beyond.. His presentation will be followed by a Q&A and networking opportunities. Buy tickets here.

About Project Connect

The Project Connect series provide a platform for diverse people and networks to converge, collaborate and catalyse something new and different. The series offers businesses a rare chance to meet people working on the next cutting edge, and to learn from their successes and failures.

The partners are AUT University, the US Embassy and Social Media New Zealand.

Project Connect forms part of an expanded series of events for Project ’15­, the follow-up to the successful Project: Digital Disruption conference