In 1996 I was just out of school and working at Pacific Data Images (PDI), in its R&D department. PDI was one of the premiere computer animation companies, and also one of the oldest, being founded in 1980.

My co-workers Drew Olbrich and Dan Wexler and I were tasked with writing a new rendering system as well as a new lighting tool. It took about three man-years (1.5 for Dan, 1 for Drew, and 0.5 for me) to build it, just in time to be used for the full-length computer animation movie Antz. DreamWorks Animation later purchased PDI and used the Lighting Tool to make over 30 movies. It’s still in use as of 2013.

In 2012, the three of us were given a Technical Achievement Award by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Strictly speaking, this isn’t an “Oscar”. It’s not even clear what that term refers to, but everyone I know keeps referring to it that way, so I’ve stopped protesting. We didn’t get the statuette; this award was for a certificate.

From left to right that’s Drew, Dan, Ted Burge (who nominated us for the award), and I. Thanks Ted!

Our renderer and lighting tool were individually good, but lots of renderers and lighting tools are good. What made ours unusual (and it’s unusual in this respect to this day) is that they were designed and built at the same time, with each other in mind. The renderer, to its core, was built with the user interface in mind. Most renderers are first built as a command-line tool, and only much later an interactive interface is built for it. By then it’s too late, the renderer is made for batch mode and can only produce final images all at once, often taking tens of minutes. With our lighting tool you could change a parameter and see results within seconds.

You can watch Zoë Saldana’s introduction and our acceptance speeches in this video: