A (now-deleted) tweet last night by Pixar director Mark Walsh announced that one of the company’s earliest employees, Loren Carpenter (pictured above right, with Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith), retired on Friday at the age of 66. To give a sense of his impact on the company, Carpenter was the guy who invented the name Pixar. The invaluable book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin recounts the evening that the name Pixar was created:
Loren Carpenter was still lobbying for “Cinematrix” for either the product or the division, but couldn’t get anyone to sign on. One evening, Loren, Alvy [Ray Smith], Jim Blinn, and Rodney Stock headed out to dinner to try to work through the problem. They settled into a booth at The Country Garden, the nearest place to their offices where you could sit down and get pretty good food at any hour. It was a little noisy, but comfortable.
“Let’s just name it after what it does. It makes pictures,” pointed out Alvy. “But it should sound cool and scientific, like ‘laser.’”
Everyone gave nods of agreement between bites. “The ‘er’ at the end is good. It’s a Spanish suffix that makes it a verb. Laser…pixel laser…pixer…”
Alvy stopped. “Pixer? That’s pretty good.”
“It sounds weird,” said Loren.
“Well, something like pixer.”
“That name will never stick,” said Loren.
Loren thought for a moment.. It just sounds kind of…strange. What about pixar.”
“That’s good,” said Alvy.
Jim and Rodney didn’t stop eating, but their eyes registered consensus. Loren was mulling it over.
“Then it sounds a little more like ‘radar,’ and sort of astronomical, like ‘quasar’ or ‘pulsar,’” Loren added.
Blinn, as an unofficial space program delegate to the meal, looked up from his soup and nodded in agreement.
Alvy was pleased. “You know, ‘ar’ is another Spanish verb ending,” he said, in further support of his case.
“I like it. If we call it Pixar it will stick, and it sounds cool,” said Loren. “This will stick.”
Carpenter is one of the key figures in the development of both computer animation and Pixar, and his role in naming Pixar (as cool as it is) would rank the least of his contributions to the company. Carpenter had started experimenting with computer animation in the late-1970s when he was an engineer at Boeing. On his own, he made Vol Libre, the first computer animated film that used fractals to generate its graphics.
After he presented that film at SIGGRAPH in 1980, he was immediately offered a job in the Lucasfilm Computer Division. When he joined the company in January 1981, he became employee number six of the division that would eventually turn into Pixar. (To put that into perspective, John Lasseter was the 22nd person hired in the division.) Carpenter further refined his software to create the anti-aliased fractal planet for the Genesis Sequence of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Carpenter has had on the images that appear in Pixar’s films today. He is the co-inventor of the REYES rendering algorithm and is one of the chief engineers (along with Ed Catmull and Rob Cook) of RenderMan which implements REYES and remains the core rendering engine of every Pixar film, not to mention countless other non-Pixar visual effects blockbusters. Carpenter eventually became Pixar’s first senior scientist, solving the kinds of technical problems that the layperson could not even fathom, things like the A-buffer hidden surface algorithm and the rules for making procedural modeling practical. At the time of his retirement, he was a senior research scientist in Disney/Pixar’s research division.
In addition to his groundbreaking work in computer animation, Loren and his wife Rachel have explored new concepts in interactivity and computer art through their own company Cinematrix. Here is a video describing a famous interactive experiment that Carpenter performed at SIGGRAPH ’91:
For a taste of Carpenter’s brilliant thought process, watch the following video interview with him. His comments beginning at the 14:30-mark stand out as one of the most convincing arguments I’ve ever heard for incorporating interactivity into filmmaking:
It’s the visionary mindset of individuals like Carpenter that allowed Pixar to create the world’s first fully computer-generated feature film. The animation world owes him a lot. Thank you, Loren.