by Kathleen King


see other bios and photos

Dr Alvy Ray Smith cofounded - or was present at the beginning of - four centers of computer graphics excellence:

Altamira Software Corporation: CEO and Cofounder 1991-1994 (purchased by Microsoft)

Pixar : Executive Vice President, Cofounder, and Director 1986-1991 (purchased by Disney) - see Pixar founding documents

Lucasfilm Ltd, Computer Division: Director of Computer Graphics Research 1980-1986

NYIT = New York Institute of Technology, Computer Graphics Laboratory: Senior Scientist 1975-1979

After these four centers he became the first Graphics Fellow at Microsoft, 1994-1999, and before them he was Visiting Scientist with Xerox PARC = Palo Alto Research Center (1974), during its heyday, and a professor of computer science at New York University (1969-73) and the University of California at Berkeley (1974). He worked briefly with Jim Blinn at Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979 on special effects for Carl Sagan's Cosmos series for public television.

See Dealers of Lightning for an excellent rendition of his Xerox PARC days.

See Annals of Computing for his own treatment of the PARC and NYIT days.

See Droidmaker by Michael Rubin for an excellent treatment of the Lucasfilm days (and the beginnings of Pixar).

See The Pixar Touch by David A. Price (Knopf, 2008) for the best, most accurate history yet of Pixar.

See Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster, 2011) for an accurate history of Alvy's involvement with Pixar and his fraught relationship with Steve Jobs. (A newer book, Becoming Steve Jobs, is simply inaccurate on this issue - Jobs never apologized.)

See Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull (Random House, 2014) for some of his involvement with Pixar and especially with his cofounder and friend, Ed Catmull, in the first 16 years of their close collaboration, from NYIT through the opening meetings of the Toy Story negotiations with Disney.

See A Biography of the Pixel (Leonardo) Alvy's own recently published book (MIT Press, 2021) about these developments and much more.

Dr Smith holds a PhD in computer science from Stanford University (dissertation: Cellular Automata Theory). He received an honorary doctorate from New Mexico State University, his undergraduate alma mater, in Dec 1999. He received an honorary doctorate from the New York Institute of Technology, where the group now known as Pixar first came together, in May 2022.

His product, Altamira Composer, introduced the concept of image objects (sprites) to the personal computer imaging world. Sprites are based on the alpha channel concept, which he coinvented and for which he shares a 1996 technical Academy Award.  He was awarded a second technical Academy Award in 1998 for digital paint systems as a fundamental contribution to filmmaking.

He was co-awarded the Computer Graphics Achievement Award by the Association for Computing Machinery Siggraph (Special Interest Group on Graphics) in 1990 for "seminal contributions to computer paint systems," including the first full-color paint program, the first soft-edged fill program, and the HSV (aka HSB) color space model. He is founding member of the Siggraph Academy.

His portrait was included in a group of 200 photographs of major contributors to the computer industry, published in the book Wizards and Their Wonders: Portraits in Computing. He was inducted into the CRN Industry Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Computer Museum in Mountain View CA. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for "fundamental changes in the graphic arts and motion picture industries." And he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science "for distinguished contributions and leadership in computer science and engineering, particularly for advances in computer graphics, including critical and foundational technical achievements in computer animation."

He directed the first use of full computer graphics in a successful major motion picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the "Genesis Demo", while at Lucasfilm. He was instrumental in hiring John Lasseter, Disney-trained animator, and directed him in his first computer graphics film, The Adventures of Andre & Wally B. which has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The team he formed for these pieces later proceeded, under Lasseter as artistic director at Pixar, to create Tin Toy, the first computer animation ever to win an Academy Award, and the first completely digital film, Toy Story, Disney's Christmas '95 release and also an Academy Award winner.

He gave Pixar its name (an invented Spanish verb meaning, "to make pictures," inspired by his upbringing in New Mexico, and the word "laser").

He initiated and negotiated the Academy-Award-winning CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) project between Pixar and Disney, the hardware and software system that Disney used for years for full production of all its "traditional" 2D animated feature films, including Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, etc. 

He was a Regent for four years for the National Library of Medicine, where he was instrumental in inaugurating the Visible Human Project.

In 1994, Dr Smith's second company, Altamira, was acquired by Microsoft, where he articulated Microsoft's vision for multimedia authoring, participated in the Digital Television (HDTV) standards definition in Washington, and guided the incorporation of Altamira Composer software technology and philosophy into Microsoft products: Image Composer, Picture It! and PhotoDraw 2000. Microsoft Digital Image Pro was based on his technology.

Dr Smith speaks extensively; he presented the 1997 Forsythe Lectures at Stanford University and the 2001 Bromilow Lecture at New Mexico State University. He has published dozens of articles on cellular automata, computer graphics, scholarly genealogy, and computer history, and created numerous artworks. He holds four patents. His work has been supported at various times by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, in addition to corporate support. He was a member of Microsoft's Art Committee, which purchased original art for the corporate collection, and which, during his watch, commissioned its first work, a large outdoor sculpture by Ursula van Rydingsvard.

In September 1997, he was a star witness in the Quantel patent trial against Adobe, helping Adobe knock down five patents that had been hindering the digital imaging business for about a decade and which threatened Adobe's flagship Photoshop product.

He resigned from Microsoft in Oct 1999 to devote his time to digital photography, scholarly genealogy, and historical writing. He is Founder and President of ars longa, his company for these pursuits. He is Trustee Emeritus of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, has published a 583-page scholarly book on the Durand family of Derby CT, winner of two prizes from the NGS (National Genealogical Society) and the CSG (Connecticut Society of Genealogists). He runs a Y-chromosome DNA study for the Riggs family, and has published a 794-page scholarly book on that family, winner of the Jacobus Award for 2007 by the Fellows of the ASG (American Society of Genealogists). He was made one of the fifty Fellows (FASG) himself in 2010. He married Alison Gopnik in 2010. He is serving as a advisor to Baobab Studios, an award-winning VR startup in Silicon Valley.

I owe a lot to my colleagues and collaborators over the years. The brevity required of a bio precludes details honoring them, corrected as follows: Nicholas Clay and Eric Lyons cofounded Altamira with me. Ed Catmull cofounded Pixar with me. Lucasfilm Computer Division and NYIT Computer Graphics Lab were not founded per se, but Ed Catmull and David DiFrancesco were there at the beginning of both (and so was Malcolm Blanchard at NYIT). My dissertation adviser was Michael Arbib. I shared the first Academy Award with Ed Catmull, Tom Porter, and Tom Duff, and the second one with Dick Shoup and Tom Porter. My co-awardee for the Siggraph award was Dick Shoup who wrote the first 8-bit paint program. Bill Reeves was fundamental to all the Lucasfilm and Pixar pieces as well as a host of others like Eben Ostby, Loren Carpenter, Tom Porter, and many more. Tom Hahn and others were principals in the CAPS project from the Pixar side, Lem Davis and others from the Disney side. Loren Carpenter helped on the creation of the word Pixar, originally for a machine we built called the Pixar Image Computer; I extended the name to the company. Nick Clay  accompanied me to Microsoft. David DiFrancesco collaborated with me for the NEA grants. The Academy Award for Tin Toy went to directors John Lasseter and Bill Reeves, and for Toy Story to director John Lasseter. Longtime colleague Jim Blinn was the other Graphics Fellow at Microsoft. The Second Coming of Steve Jobs contains many errors but the gist is right, and ditto for iCon Steve Jobs (surprisingly accurate because I did not permit an interview, despite what the book indicates). Yes, Star Trek II came out before Tron. Baobab Studios was cofounded by Maureen Fan and Eric Darnell.