Master of Computer Science (MSc) 1976, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) 1980, Computer Science Honorary Doctor of Science (Hon. DSc) 2013
Bill Reeves gets a little embarrassed when he tells the story about how he and his long-time friend Bill Buxton planted popcorn on his father's farm back in the days before Mississauga became Mississauga. But there are other stories of which he can be immensely proud, including award-winning movies he helped create as a co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios.
Reeves’ reputation as an outstanding pioneer in the field of computer animation is well founded and he credits his time at the U of T with helping him become the leader he is today. Most of his time was in the computer lab but he still fondly remembers those scrimmage hockey games on Friday nights with professors, students and staff. U of T President David Naylor called Reeves and Buxton “absolute giants” who have “helped shape the digital world over the last 20 years.”
Being a “home-town boy” from Mississauga and his love of computer science meant U of T was a “perfect fit” for Reeves, and when he came back as a grad student he had the “great luxury” of working on the Dynamic Graphics Project which in the late 1970s was experimenting with interactive computers, or “personal machines.”
“We were somewhat radicals in the computer science department,” he says, and the most valuable lessons weren’t just from mastering the software, it was from “knowing how to learn, to teach other people concepts, how to work with other people, sometimes into the early morning hours, to be part of a team.”
One of the teams he was on included a cardiologist from Toronto General Hospital, and as part of his doctoral thesis, Reeves created a motion analysis system that helped in cardiovascular research. The team examined people with heart disease who had had angiograms, and despite the rudimentary pictures, was able to track how the heart was beating by its movement.
Reeves went on to more extraordinary achievements, including inventing a new image synthesis technique called particle systems for the movie Star Trek 2, which allowed for the generation of very complex and detailed images, such as fire. He was then part of the computer division of Lucasfilm.
In 1986 he left Lucasfilm to join Pixar as head of the Animation Research and Development. In 1988 he received an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for the movie Tin Toy. And from 1991 until 1995, he was the supervising technical director on Toy Story, the highest grossing film in 1995.
When he reflects back on his years at U of T, he thinks of the “excellence of the faculty. When I was in school, the professors taught everyday courses, they weren’t in the ivory towers writing epistles. They were really good teachers.”
In June 2013 Reeves returned to U of T to receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Science, and still remains in contact with some of his professors and colleagues. As well, U of T students work as interns at Pixar in California.
His advice for students coming to U of T is to “get a broader education. We see through our recruiting that kids sometimes get a very narrow education. I would encourage students to get more breadth in their education. If you are taking computer science, take literature, or even a dance class. We can teach people to use computers, but if you have more breadth, that is so much more valuable.”
Published Dec. 9, 2013.