Eric Salituro: CS goes to the Movies

Rice alumnus Eric Salituro leveraged his computer science degree and his experience supporting Rice faculty computers and computer graphics (CG) projects into a career at the heart of the animated movie industry.

Rice University Computer Science alumnus Eric Salituro poses in front of Pixar's trophy case.

Rice University Computer Science alumnus Eric Salituro poses in front of Pixar’s trophy case.

“Movies are in my blood,” said Eric Salituro. The Rice University Computer Science alumnus (B.A. ’86) is passionate about movies in general, but has a special fondness for those that utilize digital manipulations.

So, he leveraged his computer science degree and his experience supporting Rice faculty computers and computer graphics (CG) projects into a career at the heart of the animated movie industry.

He said, “Around 1994, I started an in-house scientific visualization unit called CFAR (Center for Animation at Rice). It was intended to leverage some of the off-the-shelf CG software that was starting to become affordable. We had animation tools, rendering software, and a nonlinear editing system.

“Among the early projects I worked on was a short animation of a state-of-the-art classroom designed by Rice architecture assistant professor Mark Wamble. I had about a week to pull in his model, texture, animate and render it out for a short video to promote something called the Information Arcade, which would later be christened The Gardiner Symonds Teaching Laboratory.”

He also directed and edited a short video promoting the Lab, and was asked to work on an interactive project showing off the new Computational Engineering Building that was under construction and later named Duncan Hall.

“I produced video clips of various CS faculty talking up the new building, and used the greenscreen tech to composite them over architectural renderings of the building,” said Salituro. The animation for Wamble, and the Symonds Lab and Duncan Hall videos all required different tools and had short timelines –good preparation for the movie industry.

“In this business, someone will ask, ‘Hey, can you…?’ and you’ll have a short time line to come up with an effect or application. The time I spent learning how to quickly accomplish what the Rice professors wanted would pay off later.”

He was still working at Rice when computer animation techniques began rapidly evolving. Digital manipulations in the early 1990s had been limited to short clips like commercials. Toy Story, the first fully CGI (computer-generated imagery) movie, was not released until Thanksgiving in 1995.

“But a few weeks before Toy Story came out, Homer Simpson walked into the real world for about a minute in their Halloween episode. Watching that episode, I thought, “These guys are killing it!” and I knew I had to be part of it,” said Salituro.

He approached Pacific Data Images (PDI) and was hired as a lead technical director for a collaboration with DreamWorks’ for their first fully-animated feature film, Antz. It became Salituro’s first credit in the IMDb (Internet Movie Database).

He said, “I worked in this interesting realm between IT and the production crew, focusing on the render farm. Artists feed their work into computers, which then render them into actual images. This pipeline is a complicated process, and I was part traffic cop and part quality assurance monitor.

“It was amazing, and it was really hard, and it was completely different than anything else I’d ever done. I was on call 24×7 when we were in production. If a rendering assistant couldn’t figure something out, they’d call me and I’d walk them through the problem, day or night.”

Salituro said his primary focus was managing the jobs through the render farm and getting things through the pipeline. As a lead technical director, Salituro was interacting with many people, all with different skills in producing an animated movie. And he began attending the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) special interest group on computer graphics and interactive techniques (SIGGRAPH).

Salituro said, “I started going to SIGGRAPH first, mostly to learn about the technology, but it was also a cultural touchstone because a lot of early work in CGI would be screened at that conference first. I went every year, starting in 1987.”

He continued working on animation pipelines for full CGI features like “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” and Big Ideas’ first feature film, “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.”

Salituro had found his niche. He said, “The work doesn’t just put you in the middle of a movie studio, it’s an immersion – like film school. For example, at a certain point in production, we can go into a room and over a video link watch the film score, live as it’s being performed.

“All around me are people who love their particular part of the process. It’s an incredible feeling to be engaged in the craft of making movies, to be surrounded by passionate people who are working on all the different aspects of production.”

After working on the VeggieTales movie, Salituro was the first employee hired for a startup specializing in animation pipeline software. Although the largest animation studios had created their own pipeline software, other studios needed an out-of-the box solution.

“The middle-size and small studios loved the idea of our software,” said Salituro. “They wanted a turnkey solution and it took a number of years developing that software before we finally got it to the point where we could sell it to studios.

“There were only two of us [engineers] for a long time—I was wearing so many hats. I did advertising artwork for the product, taught classes on how to use it, and ranged from remote customer support to onsite consulting.

“Working for a software startup put me in touch with so many different people. They would come to our booth at SIGGRAPH and say, ‘Hi, Eric!’ but I’d never seen them in my life. Scanning their name badge, I’d recognize the names of customers who had been coming to me for help since I was doing most of the customer support.

“For 10 years, I’d been going to SIGGRAPH without really knowing anyone. Now, I can’t walk from my hotel to the conference without running into colleagues.”

Once the startup was on its feet, Salituro’s own steps led him to Digital Domain’s Canadian studio in Vancouver, then back to California to work for Pixar. Along the way, he’s contributed to movies like Thor and Incredibles 2. Now that he’s acclimated to the constant demands of the CGI movie industry, he appreciates small accomplishments.

“A good day is when I’m working on a project and I’ve gotten to a point where I can stop and it’s still a reasonable time of day,” he said. “Even if it’s not done, I’ve wrapped up something a few minutes before 6:00, and I can take a break. There will always be more to do tomorrow, but for now, nothing’s waiting.”

That’s a wrap.