Celebrating 30 Years Of RenderMan, The Magical Pixar VFX Engine Behind Iconic Box Office Movies
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Terminator 2. Jurassic Park. All of these classic movies were milestone achievements in their time, and have become pop culture legends ever since. But those sort of effects back in the day trace to one particular VFX platform.
RenderMan, as it’s named, is the CGI engine behind a lot of your favourite sci-fi movies, as well as modern day animated and live actions classics.
Avengers: Infinity War, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Toy Story, The Incredibles, Aquaman, all of them have used RenderMan to create their visual effects. In fact, the program has been behind all the movies that have won the last 27 of 30 total Oscars for Best VFX. And that engine belongs to none other than kid-friendly movie studio Pixar.
Ed Catmull is the co-founder of Pixar, though he retired from the studio earlier this year. But before setting up his own company in 1986, he and a lot of other early Pixar employees were working at Industrial Light and Magic, the iconic visual effects studio set up by George Lucas of Star Wars fame
In those days, creating computer-generated imagery was painstaking work. There was no platform, software or interface to do it. Instead, programmers had to manually code it in, pixel by eye-watering pixel. So when you’re looking at a movie like Tron, it took days to render just a few minutes of that VFX-filled footage.
That’s where Ed Catmull and his team come in. As head of the computing department at ILM, he decided they needed a better way to complete the process. The answer to that was an algorithm called REYES or “render everything you’ve ever seen”. Instead of by the pixel, it tweaked the process so digital effects could be rendered by the line. What used to take days to finish now took a matter of mere hours.
REYES was launched in 1982 with the production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In one scene in the movie, you see the process of a planet being rapidly terraformed. A particle-effects heavy fireball engulfs the lifeless rock, followed by a rapid closeup pan of the surface sprouting mountains, oceans overtaking land, and terrain effects appearing. All of these effects would have been unthinkable to achieve on a traditional movie timeline and budget at the time. But with REYES, they did the unthinkable.
By 1988, REYES had been compiled into the RenderMan software, allowing for more efficient graphics generation using its architecture, while also giving it a graphical interface. This way, VFX artists didn’t need to have extensive coding knowledge anymore but could simply work with a tool that did all of it in the background.
RenderMan was akin to how Microsoft’s Windows 95 brought computers to people with no knowledge of DOS.
Over time, the team also developed other tools like motion blur. Used to simulate how we realistically see fast-moving objects, it’s a technique used till date. They also developed a focal shift technology, something easy as pie to achieve with a regular camera but previously impossible with digital graphics.
The team pushed the boundaries of digital effects once more in 1991, with the molten metal killer robot from Terminator 2. To make the realistic T2, they captured live action shots of the actor playing him and morphed them in their engine, allowing them to show the molten metal distort as he walked through bars, reshaped his face, or took hits from a shotgun.
And finally, in 1993, their work Jurassic Park cemented their reputation. Though the dinosaurs were all originally supposed to be articulated stop-motion puppets, everything changed when they saw the first RenderMan test. Because of all the tools running out of the box, like motion blur, they were able to create articulated, realistic dinosaurs, with maybe half the effort it would have taken otherwise.
RenderMan has now been active for 30 years, helping many a film secure VFX honours. In just 2018, it’s been working behind the scenes on visual masterpieces like Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, and Ready Player One, so it might be on its way to more Oscar wins in the future too.