Founders and Pioneers of Modern 3D Computer Graphics

The brains behind the breakthroughs

There are thousands of wonderfully talented artists working in today's computer graphics industry, and they have a huge role in shaping the games we play and the films we watch into the works of art that they are. But behind every great digital artist is a computer scientist that helped make their work possible. 

In some cases, the scientists were artists themselves, in others they came from completely unrelated disciplines. The one thing that every person on this list has in common is that they pushed computer graphics forward in some way. Some of them laid the groundwork many years ago when the industry was still in its infancy. Others refined the techniques, finding new solutions to old problems. 

They were all pioneers:

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Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull
Todd Williamson / Contributor/Getty Images

Known ForTexture Mapping, Anti-aliasing, Subdivision Surfaces, Z-Buffering

Because of his celebrated status as one of the co-founders of Pixar Animation Studios, Ed Catmull is probably the most well-known computer scientist on this list. Anyone who's spent any amount of time following or reading about the Computer Graphics industry has almost certainly come across his name once or twice, and even folks uninterested in the technical side of CG may have seen him accept an Academy Award for technical achievement in 2009.

Aside from Pixar, Catmull's greatest contributions to the field include the invention of texture mapping (try to imagine an industry without texture mapping), the development of anti-aliasing algorithms, the refinement of subdivision surface modeling, and pioneering work on the concept of Z-buffering (depth management). 

Ed Catmull was truly one of the first computer scientists to really begin laying the groundwork for a modern computer graphics industry, and his contributions to the field are truly staggering. He is currently acting president of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.

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Jim Blinn

Jim Blinn
Wikimedia Commons

Known ForBlinn-Phong Shader Model, Bump Mapping

Blinn started his career at NASA, where he worked on visualizations for the Voyager mission, however,​ his contribution to computer graphics came in 1978 when he revolutionized the way light interacts with 3D surfaces in a software environment. Not only did he write the Blinn-Phong shader model, which presented a computationally inexpensive (i.e. fast) way of computing surface reflections on a 3D model, he is also credited with the invention of bump mapping. 

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Loren Carpenter & Robert Cook

Loren Carpenter
Photoshot / Contributor/Getty Images

Known ForReyes Rendering

Our first pair, on the list, Carpenter and Cook are inseparable because they published their groundbreaking work as co-authors (Ed Catmull also contributed to the research). The pair was instrumental in the development of the photorealistic Reyes rendering architecture, which forms the basis of Pixar's monumentally successful PhotoRealistic RenderMan software package (PRMan for short).

Reyes, which stands for Renders Everything You Ever Saw, is still widely used in studio settings, most notably at Pixar, but also as a cluster of Reyes spinoffs typically referred to as Renderman-compliant renderers. For smaller studios and individual artists, Reyes has mostly been supplanted by scanline/raytracing packages like Mental Ray and VRay.

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Ken Perlin

Ken Perlin
Slaven Vlasic / Stringer/Getty Images

Known ForPerlin Noise, Hypertexture, Real-Time Character Animation, Stylus-Based Input Devices

Perlin is another one of those industry heavyweights who's achievements are far-reaching and invaluable. Perlin Noise is a popular and shockingly versatile procedural texture (as in, quick, easy, no texture-map required) that comes standard in virtually every 3D software package. Hypertexture — the ability to view changes to a model's textures in real-time — is one of the great time-saving techniques in an artist's toolset. I think real-time character animation probably speaks for itself. Stylus-Based Input Devices — try separating a digital sculptor from their trusty Wacom tablet.

These are all things that a digital artist uses every single day that he or she makes art. Perhaps none of Perlin's advances were as groundbreaking as say, the invention of texture-mapping, but they're every bit as valuable. 

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Pat Hanrahan & Henrik Wann Jensen

Pat Hanrahan
Valerie Macon / Stringer/Getty Images

Known ForSubsurface Scattering, Photon Mapping

Ever seen Pixar's Tin Toy or any other early attempt at a photo-realistic rendering of a human character? Something looks off, right? That's because human skin isn't entirely opaque — it actually transmits, scatters, or absorbs a large portion of the light that strikes it, giving our skin a subtle red or pink hue where blood vessels are closer to the surface. Early surface shaders were incapable of rendering this effect properly, causing human characters to appear dead or zombie-like. ​

Subsurface Scattering (SSS) is a shading technique that renders skin in layers, with each layer transmitting a different ambient hue based on depth-maps—this is Jensen & Hanrahan's greatest contribution to the field, and it's instrumental in the way human characters are rendered today. 

The photon mapping algorithm was written by Jensen alone and similar deals with light passing through translucent materials. Specifically, photon mapping is a two-pass global illumination technique used most commonly to simulate light passing through glass, water, or vapor.

The two were Awarded Academy awards in technical achievement for their work on subsurface scattering.

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Arthur Appel & Turner Whitted

Arthur Appel
Wikimedia Commons

Known ForRaycasting & Raytracing Algorithms

Although technically two separate breakthroughs, we're counting raycasting (Appel 1968) and later raytracing (Whitted 1979) as a single entry because Turner Whitted was essentially building on and adapting the work that Apple had done many years before. 

Together, the one-two punch forms the basis of most modern rendering techniques, and have supplanted scanline renderers because of their greater ability to accurately reproduce natural lighting phenomena like color bleed, shadow falloff, refraction, reflection, and depth of field. Although raytracing renderers are highly accurate, their greatest disadvantage has always been (and still remains) their speed and efficiency. However, with today's ultra-powerful CPUs and dedicated graphics hardware, this has become less of an issue.​

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Paul Debevec

Paul Debevec
Max Morse / Stringer/Getty Images

Known ForImage-Based Rendering & Modeling, HDRI

Because of his breakthroughs, Paul Debevec is solely responsible for tens of thousands of ill-advised "futuristic car sitting in an empty white room but still reflecting a full environment" images. But he's also responsible for simplifying the workflow of hundreds of environmental, automotive, and architectural visualization specialists. 

Image-based rendering makes it possible to use an HDRI image (a 360-degree panoramic image of an environment) to generate light-maps for a 3D scene. Generating lightmaps from a real-world vista means that artists no longer need to spend hours placing lights and reflector boxes in a 3D scene in order to get a respectable render.

His work on image-based modeling allows for the generation of a 3D model from a collection of still images — these techniques were initially used on The Matrix, and have been implemented in dozens of films since then.

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Krishnamurthy & Levoy

Marc Levoy
Stanford University

Known ForNormal Mapping

Where to begin with these two. Their oeuvre may only consist of a single breakthrough, but boy was it a big one. Normal mapping is built on the idea that it's possible to fit a highly detailed mesh (with millions of polygons) to a low-resolution polygonal cage based on the model's surface normals.

That might not sound like much if you're coming from a visual effects background where it's not unheard of to dedicate up to 80 CPU hours of render time to a single frame of film. Just get a warehouse full of computers and brute force it, you might say.

But how about in the games industry where entire environments need to be rendered 60 times every second? The ability to "bake" highly detailed game environments with millions of polygons into a low-poly real-time mesh is pretty much the sole reason that today's games look so darn good. Gears of War without normal mapping? Not a chance. 

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Ofer Alon & Jack Rimokh

Ofer Alon
Jason LaVeris / Contributor/Getty Images

Known ForFounded Pixologic, created ZBrush

Just about ten years ago these guys rocked the industry when they founded Pixologic and introduced the revolutionary modeling application, ZBrush. They single-handedly ushered in the era of the digital sculptor, and with it came hundreds of fantastically detailed, impeccably textured, organic 3D models like the world had never seen.

Used in conjunction with normal mapping, ZBrush (and similar software like Mudbox built on the same concepts) has changed the way modelers work. Instead of laboring over edge-flow and topology, it's now possible to sculpt a 3D model like it's a piece of digital clay with little need to place polygons vertex by vertex.

On behalf of modelers everywhere, thank you Pixologic. Thank you.

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William Reeves

William Reeves
Alberto E. Rodriguez / Staff/Getty Images

Known ForMotion Blur algorithm

Reeves is one of those guys who has worn just about every hat you can imagine in the computer graphics industry. He worked as technical director on John Lasseter's seminal Luxo Jr. short film (the birth of the Pixar lamp) and has played major roles in eleven feature films. His contributions have usually been in technical positions, but he's occasionally lent his talents as a modeler, and even once as an animator.

His greatest technical achievement and the real reason he's on this list is for developing the first algorithm to successfully emulate motion blur in computer animation.