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Department: Computer Science

Milliron2 Computer Science

Tim Milliron ’99

Technical Director, Pixar Animation Studios

Discovering computer science

Some of the essays in Major Choices will talk about discovering the elegance of philosophical argument or falling in love with the classics. I fell in love with computers.

Of course, it seems that computer science is a good, solid, safe major with a guaranteed career waiting after graduation. But that’s not why I chose it. When I came to Princeton in 1995, I was convinced I’d become a civil engineer, grow up to design bridges or roads, and work in the great outdoors to supervise their construction. It took just one introductory computer science course to change my mind. After a few linked-list assignments in COS 126, I was hooked. I had discovered an aptitude and a passion I didn’t know I had, and by the end of my freshman year, I was glued to a computer monitor.

Following new passions

During my sophomore year, I found another passion: computer graphics. I discovered “CG” during my first “big project” class, where much of the grade is based on one large, semester-long programming project exercising the concepts in the class. Those big projects were spectacular teachers of some of the “intangibles” I learned at Princeton: working in teams, planning large projects, and making myself stay awake for more hours than I thought possible.

In 1996, CG was on the fringes of computer science. Toy Story had been released just one year before, and that first computer-animated film seemed likely to be a one-time oddity. Nonetheless, I threw myself into this new passion. Fortunately, one of the best things about a Princeton education is its flexibility. With the wide-ranging interests of the faculty, I quickly found a few courses to feed my passion. More importantly, I found an adviser, Adam Finkelstein, who helped guide me beyond the course offerings with new ideas and independent work.

But something else played a pivotal role in defining my path. In 1998, I landed a summer internship at Pixar Animation Studios. I was hired to adapt technology I’d developed in my junior independent work to Pixar’s animation system. In the summer of 1998, the studio was abuzz finishing A Bug’s Life, and during that time I was exposed not only to world-class computer graphics, but also to world-class artists and filmmakers. That summer reminded me of another interest and aptitude I’d forgotten during college: art.

I returned to Princeton fired up about a new passion: the art of filmmaking. And, once again, Princeton’s academic breadth and flexibility supported my new addiction. I found courses in visual arts that helped round out my knowledge of film theory and taught me the practical aspects of filmmaking. I even helped my adviser start a graduate-level course focused on CG film production. Princeton allowed me to develop my own eclectic, cross-disciplinary course of study.

Building animation software

My experience at Princeton and my passions for filmmaking and computer graphics led me back to Pixar in 1999 as a “technical director.” On my first two assignments, I built the door vault in Monsters, Inc. (just watch the chase sequence at the end), and the water surface for Finding Nemo. The practical skills I learned at Princeton—programming, mathematics, algorithmic analysis—were invaluable. But so were many of the intangibles of my Princeton experience, like my ability to work well in teams and under pressure.

More recently, my career at Pixar has become managerial. On Cars, I managed the small team that built all the characters for the film (you can find my credit as “Characters Supervisor”). For the past year, I’ve been managing a project to build Pixar’s next-generation, in-house animation software. And going forward, I’ll be working to revamp much of Pixar’s production process for future films.

These new assignments leverage the intangibles of my Princeton experience: my ability to innovate and think outside the box; my skill at seeing the bigger picture. Most importantly, the lasting value of my Princeton experience is the confidence it gave me to follow my passion into the unknown and believe I would succeed.