Pixar ties to Utah run deep

Published: Thursday, June 20 2013 4:10 p.m. MDT

JUST ANOTHER WIDE-EYED COLLEGE STUDENT – Mike Wazowski has arrived—and Monsters University will never be the same. With frightening new classes, a campus full of new friends and even scarier rivals, college life promises to be an interesting and uproarious adventure.


Pixar is returning to theaters this weekend with its 14th film, "Monsters University," a prequel to the 2001 "Monsters, Inc."

In the nearly two decades since the premiere of the studio's first film, "Toy Story," Pixar's films have become family favorites worldwide.

"In the end you want to have something in a movie that lives a long time," said Ed Catmull, president and co-founder of Pixar. "These movies will stick around for decades or a hundred years and could still be meaningful. You want to have something that affects world culture in a positive way."

While Catmull may now live and work in California's Bay area, he grew up and attended college in Utah. And it was in Utah that Catmull first began learning about computer graphics.

Between his undergraduate and graduate degrees, Catmull spent eight years studying physics and computer science at the University of Utah. It was during his master's program at the U. that Catmull became involved with the budding computer graphics industry.

"Computer graphics were key to the changing of visual effects in movies, and that pioneering work was all done there at the U.," Catmull said. "So its role in computer science history, in computer revolution, is actually pretty strong — stronger than some people realize. But in the area of graphics it is the dominant player in the early days.”

Utah's rich history of animation work that began with the computer graphics work Catmull became involved with at Utah has continued throughout the decades.

Today, the state's two largest universities, Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, are nationally ranked for their animation and design programs.

Much of this is due to Utahns like Catmull, who has taken a vested interest in mentoring students and professionals still in Utah.

The Pixar president continues to serve on the advisory council for the College of Engineering at the University of Utah. While he serves on several boards across the country, Catmull said he has remained very close to his alma mater.

"The U. is, I think, unique," Catmull said. "... Their ability to listen to others and pay attention is really remarkable. They have a great team up there, and that’s what makes a better program."

Pixar also helped to mentor some of the creators of BYU's animation program, such as Brent Adams, a BYU professor and current director of the school's Center for Animation.

Adams sought advice from many industry professionals before creating the school's animation program.

As Adams visited a good friend who worked at Pixar, he said he was surprised to learn that the studio's president, Catmull, had blocked out a full hour to speak with Adams about the formation of the animation program.

"I was embarrassed to take so much of his time, but he had the most amazing insight into what we should be doing and how we could do it," Adams said in an email. "He is a genius. I am sure that it helped that he was from Utah and understood the culture of BYU and our constraints, but he told me that he spent time with faculty from lots of schools because of his love for education."

Catmull comes from long line of educators. His father was the principal of Granite High School before becoming principal of Taylorsville High School when that school opened. His brother taught a shop class and his two sisters work as school counselors.

"... The environment that we grew up in was education. I think it’s important," Catmull said. "The legacy that we leave unto others is what we teach them. And it just always made sense to me. So I’ve had this fondness for education."

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