Programming Pixar, with Loren Carpenter

The Pixar co-founder and programmer talks about his recent work with Immersive VR Education’s ENGAGE platform, and his thoughts on edtech’s future

For a person at the top of his field, having been an Oscar-winner, honouree, and even building one of the most beloved and successful animation studios of all time, Loren Carpenter is incredibly down-to-earth. Calling him at his office in California, he was more than happy to take the time to chat, and spoke about everything from his days at the University of Washington to his experience with a virtual reality classroom, and even his favourite Pixar movie.

I was introduced to Loren due to his recent involvement with UK-based company Immersive VR Education, whose ENGAGE platform was used to ‘beam’ him in to a virtual reality classroom that was then attended remotely, via headset, by pupils from Langley College near Slough. Loren spoke to the students about his prolific career in programming and animation, alongside Dubai-based teacher and VR pioneer Steve Banbury. 

But Loren’s education story starts much earlier, in the 1960s as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. Undertaking a batchelor’s degree in mathematics, and then later a master’s degree in computer science, Loren also maintained a full-time job during his studies, as well as having a family of his own. Asking Loren about his choice of subjects, he said: “I’m particularly interested in math and computer science, so I would have studied them wherever I was. But my goal at the time, as a student in college, was to acquire tools.” This comment immediately resonated with the messages about ‘soft skills’ and approaches to learning that very often rear their head during discussions on STEAM. 

Loren continued: “I knew that someday I was going to have the opportunity to do something interesting, so I wanted to have as many tools as I could manage to acquire in the time that I had.” And do something interesting he did. Looking at his career trajectory in 2018, Loren has achieved an almost unfathomable success. However, whilst a university student, he wanted to complete his PhD but was unable to do so due to his other commitments: “The PhD at Washington, where I was, wanted a full-time residency for one year for the PhD students, and there was no way I could do that, so I stopped at a master’s degree.” 

But this did not let Loren stop him. He took matters into his own hands and completed research in the subjects in which he was interested on his own time: “I went on and did a lot of research, just on my own, that equally would have qualified for a PhD, so I kind of did one, but not officially.” This entrepreneurial spirit has been an important factor throughout Loren’s life. Speaking about an early job he had at Boeing in Seattle, he mentioned how he would use the plotting machines in his workspace to make images. “[The first Boeing job] was pretty fun in the sense that I wasn’t busy, really, so I would have some time to myself, and I would write my own programs, and make pictures on the plotting machines.” This in itself led to job progression, as the programming staff that worked with the plotting machines noticed that Loren was proficient with the technology and asked him to join their team. But although he enjoyed his job, Loren credits using these machines to make pictures as far more important in helping to formalise his interest in computer graphics. Of his ingenuity in using the tech around him, Loren explained that he was “always pretty skilled at finding something fun to do,” and it is this pursuit of fun that has fuelled much of his progression. 

Loren at the Oscars with wife Rachel

Loren’s career in the entertainment industry needs little introduction; his groundbreaking work on fractals enabled the first 3D, textured landscape made through computer graphics, and was featured in 1982’s Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, while Loren was working at Lucasfilm. His development of this algorithm and the resulting RenderMan software was the start of a new era in cinema, leading up to the realistic and fleshed-out Pixar movies that we see today. 

Although his progression through the entertainment industry, from Lucasfilm in the early 1980s, through building Pixar and its exponential success is fascinating in its own right, it was Loren’s insights into education and technology that I wanted to hear about. I was particularly interested in something he repeated throughout the interview, that he was always looking to do something that was ‘fun’. When considering the importance of education, the functional aspects of schooling often take over; getting ready for work, passing exams, and gaining certain basic knowledge. However, especially with the advent of the STEAM movement, educators are now considering the enjoyment and wider social development that education can foster in young people. Loren is no stranger to this, and has long held the opinion that to do well, although hard work is incredibly important, applying this focus to something you’re truly interested in is likely to yield much better results than plugging away at something you find boring. 

Talking about his movements through the programming world, he described it as “great fun”. But rather than taking the safe route and going to work in a job that was comfortable and well-established, it was innovation that excited Loren: “Somebody once in a while will ask me what’s fun, and I say I’m pretty sure I could do something that’s been done before, [but] I have a passion for doing something for the first time, if at all possible.” 

Despite the somewhat intense nature of Loren’s own higher education journey, during our conversation he didn’t ever describe this as gruelling, or horrible, or tough, preferring rather to call this time in his life ‘focused’. And it was the interest in tech, rather an interest in the entertainment industry itself that drove his development. Talking about his time at the University of Washington, Loren explained how on his walk from his car to his classes, he would pass libraries that held government-funded research, and theses on computer science. This was useful, and gave Loren some important tools to work with: “Since I was a programmer, and interested in learning more about computers, I would read over technical reports that were coming out of universities all over the country, and some of them started to show how you could make a picture with a computer.” It was this new research that caught Loren’s attention, and inspired him: “I picked it up, and said “I can do that. I have a little bit of understanding of geometry, and a good understanding of algebra [so] I can do that, just let me at it!” 

Loren at Lucasfilm circa 1982, along with Ed Catmull (currently head of Disney Animation) and Alvy Ray Smith

During his master’s degree, Loren took this knowledge that he’d gained from reading reports and theses in the library, and turned them into his final project, and took the findings back to Boeing with him to apply them in the real world. It was at this point, that along with a couple of colleagues, he helped introduce computer-generated technical images of the aircraft, which until this point had all been drawn and measured by hand. This application of knowledge, and the time he had for ‘tinkering’ is what Loren recommends for students that are interested in pursuing computer science or animation: “Get something you can practise with. Even if it’s a hand-me-down computer. You need to have something you can chew on every day to build up experience. Then work hard, that’s important. Because if you don’t have enough experience, you can’t take full advantage of opportunities that present themselves.” 

And this doesn’t just mean coding and programming. Asking him about his experiences with the VR classroom through ENGAGE, and his thoughts on the adoption of VR in education going forward, Loren was realistic, but enthusiastic: “We’ll know it’s been successful when it’s commonplace. But I can see there are extraordinary opportunities in VR. Think of field trips and the like; it offers the chance to do them on an entirely different scale – you could look at the whole solar system! It’s incredible, I wish I had it when I was growing up.” 

In terms of tips for teachers, especially those who may be somewhat apprehensive about adopting tools such as VR in the classroom, Loren had a similar recommendation for ‘trying it out’: “Just give it a go yourself, that should take care of most fears. Because then [you] will have an idea what [the experience] is like, and have an indication of designs and models, create a program for [your] class – that should increase understanding.” Secondly, he said, you don’t need top-of-the-line equipment for classroom VR: “I have a high-end system because I need it to be able to run anything, but in a classroom, you don’t need that high-end. To do full-scale, classroom-wide VR, you’re looking at around $1,000 per person. But that price is coming down quickly.” 

For Loren, then, it’s all about finding a way around things. This has been evident throughout his own career, and he recommends it for a fulfilling education. But it’s not just about getting through school and getting a job. Education – and life – should be fun and interesting, and Loren Carpenter is certainly a perfect example of how this outlook can work to the utmost advantage. 

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