Remembering CG Pioneer Bill Kovacs

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On June 4, 2006, a milestone was marked on the Santa Barbara, Calif., waterfront: the 22nd anniversary of the founding of Wavefront Technologies. Sadly, this anniversary was also a memorial for William Kovacs, the software genius behind Wavefront, who passed away suddenly on May 30. Felled by a stroke, Kovacs was only 56 years old. It's a measure of the youthfulness of the CG medium that it blossomed during the arc of one too-brief career.

Although Kovacs was educated in architecture at Carnegie Mellon and Yale, and hired by the prestigious firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, his interest in computer-aided architectural design was immediately transformed when he saw how computers were being used at the Hollywood studio of Robert Abel and Associates. Before long, Kovacs became Abel's technical guru, and he wrangled the creative power of the early flight simulator hardware that Abel had purchased from Evans and Sutherland. As Kovacs' protégé Frank Vitz, who is now at Electronic Arts, observes, “Bill was the consummate expert at writing the ‘glue code’ that would connect things together and get them to look like they lived in the same world. It was spit-and-bailing-wire programming, but it worked.”

Vitz recalls, “Bill was gung-ho about the great potential for CG production. He made everyone read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. He saw us as digital astronauts, probing the frontiers of what was possible with computer graphics.”

Fellow Abel alumnus John Nelson (an Oscar winner for Gladiator) says, “[Kovacs' success was due to] never making excuses about why something couldn't be done. He got people excited about why new ideas could and should be tried. It's not surprising that Bill founded his own company before anyone else.”

In retrospect, it was a bold move for Kovacs to leave Abel and found Wavefront. In the early 1980s, most CG studios — Pixar, Digital Productions, and PDI, as well as Abel — relied on code developed inhouse. But after Kovacs joined Larry Barels and Mark Sylvester to launch Wavefront, it quickly became clear that they'd tapped into a waiting market for off-the-shelf 3D CG software. Wavefront attracted licensees of all types, from local production houses such as Santa Barbara Studios to Detroit's automotive design giants. Ex-Abel artist and five-time Oscar winner Richard Edlund signed his Boss Film Studios up as a Wavefront licensee. Edlund believed that the software's usefulness owed a lot to Kovacs' background in production. “Bill developed his ideas about software in the school of hard knocks, working against hideous deadlines,” Edlund says. “He understood the kind of tools that filmmakers needed and he brought them to us, like a gift from the Magi.”

Like Edlund, many ex-Abelites welcomed Wavefront software. Electronic Arts' Richard Taylor, who had met Kovacs while supervising the landmark CG film Tron, says, “[Wavefront software was] so beautifully designed that even a non-technical person could learn it. Wavefront was a major reason that CG took a leap forward. One of Bill's greatest pleasures was to spur artists to create something new.”

When Wavefront was sold to Silicon Graphics and merged with Alias in 1995, it marked the start of the CG software juggernaut that eventually became Autodesk's powerhouse tool Maya. But the industry didn't forget the roots of these developments, and in 1997, Kovacs and fellow programmer Roy Hall were honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with Scientific and Engineering Awards.

Kovacs devoted his post-Wavefront career to consulting with companies as varied as Electronic Arts and Rez-N-8 digital studios, as well as to education. He taught at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, where he served on the President's Board, and became the first visiting artist for technology at Loyola Marymount's School of Film and Television. He also remained active in Siggraph, the computer graphics association where he first met Pixar pioneer Ed Catmull.

Catmull remembers Kovacs as one of the early Siggraph comrades who shared his vision of using CG for production. “Back then, the studios ignored us all as a bunch of wackos,” he says. “Bill was one of the first guys in the field, and people didn't believe him.” Catmull, who's now president of Disney as well as Pixar, recalls that things might have turned out differently. Back in Catmull's early days at Lucasfilm, he tried to hire Kovacs to run the graphics group at ILM. “But he declined because he was starting Wavefront,” he says. “One of the reasons that Wavefront took hold was through the leadership of Bill.”

Kovacs' leadership will be long remembered because of his technical achievements. More difficult to measure, but perhaps more important, is the large number of people who've pursued computer graphics because they were inspired by his passion. As Catmull simply says, “Bill was one of the great people in the history of CGI.”