Among the credits for this behind-the-scenes video by Fido, a Swedish animation company, one finds the following note: “Shading/Rendering: Pixar’s RenderMan Studio.” In fact, many viewers first find this video not through Fido's marketing channels, but on Pixar's RenderMan website. Carefully positioned to the side of Pixar’s entertainment branch, turned away from animation viewers and toward animation producers, the proprietary RenderMan platform broadcasts the studio's global technological influence — an influence that turns hundreds of companies like Fido into RenderMan success stories rather than Pixar competitors.
RenderMan developed alongside Pixar since the mid-1980s, designed to efficiently compute which parts of an animated scene need to be processed in detail, and which can be pre-discarded. This allows for more rapid and complex computation of textures and lights. RenderMan built on a preceding pioneering structure also developed by Pixar’s founders, REYES, which breaks up processing tasks and distributes them across networks of computers, dividing complex operations among multiple machines ("farms"). To characterize it very broadly, RenderMan is a structure for highly efficient image dissection and analysis.
However, RenderMan has not only made Pixar’s animated films technically possible, it also, in part, defined the company’s animation philosophy. The initial REYES acronym is anecdotally deciphered as a call to “Render Everything You Ever Saw,” a mission that reveals the studio’s commitment to verisimilitude and its singular preoccupation with visible surfaces. The software’s particular strengths privilege extremes of surface complexity: complex texture (fabric, fur, hair, grass) and complex reflectivity (glass, shiny steel, crystal). As such, many of Pixar’s critically acclaimed characters and environments were first circulated as demos for various RenderMan iterations, and many are prominently promoted on the RenderMan website as case studies for the software.
Fido's CGI reconstruction of an endangered falcon, produced for a nature conservation society, seems so different from Pixar’s animation style. Yet one can also consider how the video's application of RenderMan extends Pixar’s underlying ethos— to synthetically reconstruct the real world through its optically accessible surface. The rendered sunlit feathers of the soaring bird hold out a promise to resurrect the surface of life (Presto!), even after it goes extinct. Technological development and competition have always been a central part of commercial animation history. Pixar’s RenderMan exemplifies the integral role that proprietary technology continues to play in CGI authorship, as more studios and directors invest in software development and ownership.