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Every Sunday, as a kid, Catmull watched on TV The Wonderful World of Disney, where Disney explained how they made their animations and incorporated technological breakthroughs into their work. One day, Catmull had a life-changing realization: a good animation was measured by whether or not the character on the screen made you believe it was a thinking being. He decided he wanted to become an animator and create emotional characters.
Catmull graduated with a double major in Physics and Computer Science from the University of Utah. In his graduate program he met professor Ivan Sutherland, a pioneer in computer graphics and director of the computer graphics program. The program was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the creators of the first computer network, ARPANET, which would later evolve into the Internet. ARPA was developed as a response to the threat of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, the first of its kind. The U.S. felt threatened by Soviet technological advancements and they developed ARPA to stay up with the Soviets. To Catmull, the lesson to be learned from this was when the competition gets smart, you need to get smarter. Catmull found enormous inspiration in the computer graphics program, not only from the technology he was discovering but also from his fellow students. The collaborative and creative atmosphere he experienced there was something he later tried to emulate at Pixar.
In 1972, Catmull made his first animated film, a digitized model of his left hand. Hand became a reference for state-of-the-art computer animation.
Professor Sutherland came up with the idea of an exchange program with Disney. Disney would send an animator to the University of Utah to learn about new technologies, and the university would send one of their students to learn about storytelling. Catmull was sent to propose...