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Exclusive: RenderMan’s Chris Ford Chats with Upcoming Pixar + 2010 Walking Teapot Preview!

For over 20 years, Pixar’s RenderMan has been raking in top accolades for its industry standard rendering capabilities.

Not only does this software "power" the studio’s films, but it’s also responsible for rendering "every single Visual Effects Academy Award winner over the past 16 years!" So, why don’t we hear much about the folks behind Pixar’s hidden gem? 

At Upcoming Pixar we’re here to change that, so we recruited the help of Business Director Chris Ford to spread the word. We met during our Pixar tour (with Renee Lamri) and from then on I knew this needed to be done!

Below, you’ll get insight on the rich history of the studio’s crucial software and some future plans to push its boundaries. We even learn about Pixar’s Seattle location, the iconic Walking Teapots (including a preview of this year’s "model"), and the Brain Trust’s involvement in development:

Upcoming Pixar: How would you describe Pixar’s RenderMan; rendering?
Chris Ford: RenderMan is the software technology developed by Pixar that is used to create the images you see on the movie screen for all of our films. Essentially, after all of the characters and sets have been designed, modeled, animated, textured, shaded and lit, rendering is the process in which the final high resolution cinematic image is created.

UP: If RenderMan were a superhero, what would his super power be?
CF: Why, RenderMan is Mr. Incredible! Mature and knowledgeable, still able to beat young upstarts, and perform amazing feats!

UP: What’s the origin story behind RenderMan (real or fictional) and how has the software evolved over the years?
CF: In 1988 Pixar released the RenderMan Interface Specification as a standard format for describing 3D data, and then in 1989 Pixar released a renderer based on that specification called Pixar’s PhotoRealistic RenderMan which is one of the most important technologies responsible for the revolution in visual effects and feature animation over the past 20 years.

This is certainly not to downplay the contributions of other technologies, but ultimately everything depends on being able to render images at such high quality that they can stand on their own merits or be convincingly blended with live-action. 

UP: In your opinion, how has RenderMan stayed on top for over 20 years?
CF: There are three key factors I would like to highlight. First, RenderMan is the product of a working animation studio which is critical to our long term success. Second and just as importantly, RenderMan is used by the entire visual effects industry and each day it is stress tested and pushed to the very limits. It is the ever increasing demands of visual effects as much as animated feature films that keeps us on our toes and advancing the state of the art. The third key factor is the RenderMan community itself… it is the spirit of cooperation, feedback, and communication between all of us that keeps RenderMan ahead of the curve.

UP: RenderMan has been implemented on blockbusters like Jurassic Park, and more recently Star Trek and Avatar. What’s the philosophy behind licensing the technology to third parties instead of just using it in-house?
CF: It is certainly beneficial to Pixar that the entire feature film industry is continually pushing RenderMan’s limits and the same is true in reverse. There are always new effects and techniques that different studios want to use that have often already been tested and used in other productions. There is no substitute for broad exposure across the industry and Pixar would not be able to exercise the creative options it has done without the beneficial feedback that all RenderMan users have provided. It’s a win-win for everyone.

UP: What role does Pixar’s Brain Trust of directors play in the development of new versions of RenderMan?
CF: Our Directors are always looking for distinctive visual styles and effects for our films and this certainly drives our development. We all learn from each other. John Lasseter put it very well when he said that "Art challenges the technology, and technology inspires the art. That’s it in a nutshell the way we work at Pixar."

UP: Was there any Pixar film (or films) that pushed RenderMan to its limit during production?
CF: They all do in different ways! For example, Monsters, Inc. pushed hair and fur rendering, Nemo pushed underwater lighting effects, and Ratatouille raised the bar overall on sheer visual complexity and realism, just taste that delicious digital food!

UP: Tell us a little bit about the separate RenderMan offices in Seattle, WA.
CF: Much of the RenderMan team is actually located in Seattle in Pioneer Square’s Smith Tower [the city’s oldest skyscraper.] One advantage to having a separate location is that the team is highly focused on rendering specifically and independent of the daily demands and rhythms of the studio. We also have members of the RenderMan team who are located in our main Emeryville studio and who work with each production. This separation is a useful discipline that keeps us focused on the core quality values of RenderMan.

UP: What’s the story behind those Walking Teapots?
CF: Pixar’s RenderMan walking teapot is sort of an industry joke, which began as homage to Martin Newell’s Utah teapot. Martin created the original Utah teapot in 1974… today most people working in CG know about what is now an icon.

In 2003, Pixar’s Dylan Sisson had a brainstorm to take the iconic Utah teapot and put legs on it and voila, the “walking teapot” was born. For the last seven years, Pixar has handed out walking teapots at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics industry event. [T]he walking teapot gets a new look [every year], and it’s become something of an underground sensation.

UP: What’s the next big thing for RenderMan?
CF: The first rule of rendering is that you can never have enough! It is a given that in future RenderMan will handle more data, create ever greater visual detail and realism, and every Director will still want more! One new technology we are currently working on is called re-rendering which enables Technical Directors to more effectively interact in real time with lighting and shading before committing to a final full resolution render that traditionally can take hours. We continue to put a lot of effort into making the user experience of RenderMan as accessible as possible to a wider audience.


I’d like to thank Chris Ford for his time and hope our readers enjoy his perspective on Pixar’s less talked about innovation.

For more information, check out RenderMan’s recently refurbished official website. Also, make sure to "like" Walking Teapots on Facebook — it’s the official fan page!

Can any of you guess what Pixar character the Walking Teapot silhouette is "dressed up" as? Personally, I’m not so sure.

0 Responses to Exclusive: RenderMan’s Chris Ford Chats with Upcoming Pixar + 2010 Walking Teapot Preview!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Intersting interview!

    I never knew about the walking teapot before.

    — thewisecookiesheet

  2. jashack says:

    Given the hat shape, my best guess is Russell from UP!

  3. Oh man, this is such a great interview! It’s really quite sad that one of most constantly improving parts of computer generated imagery get so overlooked 🙁 Thanks for getting the word out on all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to give us such wonderful imagery.

    P.S. Thanks for fixing the login system!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Its surely the Grape Soda badge for the all the commitment, the team has shown over those consistent years. Pixar never failed to surprise and Renderman itself stands unique by itself. Kudos to all the brains behind this amazing toolset.