Danielle Feinberg – Pixar’s director of photography
When I was seven years old, some well-meaning adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Proudly, I said: “An artist.”
“No, you don’t,” he said, “You can’t make a living being an artist!”
My little seven-year-old Picasso dreams were crushed.
But I gathered myself, went off in search of a new dream, eventually settling on being a scientist, perhaps something like the next Albert Einstein.
I have always loved math and science, later, coding. And so I decided to study computer programming in college. In my junior year, my computer graphics professor showed us these wonderful short films. It was the first computer animation any of us had ever seen.
I watched these films in wonder, transfixed, fireworks going off in my head, thinking, “That is what I want to do with my life.”
The idea that all the math, science and code I had been learning could come together to create these worlds and characters and stories I connected with, was pure magic for me.
Just two years later, I started working at the place that made those films, Pixar Animation Studios. It was here I learned how we actually execute those films. To create our movies, we create a three-dimensional world inside the computer.
We start with a point that makes a line that makes a face that creates characters, or trees and rocks that eventually become a forest. And because it’s a three-dimensional world, we can move a camera around inside that world. I was fascinated by all of it.
But then I got my first taste of lighting. Lighting in practice is placing lights inside this three-dimensional world. I actually have icons of lights I move around in there.
Here you can see I’ve added a light, I’m turning on the rough version of lighting in our software, turn on shadows and placing the light. As I place a light, I think about what it might look like in real life, but balance that out with what we need artistically and for the story.
So it might look like this at first, but as we adjust this and move that in weeks of work, in rough form it might look like this, and in final form, like this. There’s this moment in lighting that made me fall utterly in love with it. It’s where we go from this to this.
It’s the moment where all the pieces come together, and suddenly the world comes to life as if it’s an actual place that exists. This moment never gets old, especially for that little seven-year-old girl that wanted to be an artist.
As I learned to light, I learned about using light to help tell story, to set the time of day, to create the mood, to guide the audience’s eye, how to make a character look appealing or stand out in a busy set.
Did you see WALL-E? There he is. As you can see, we can create any world that we want inside the computer. We can make a world with monsters, with robots that fall in love, we can even make pigs fly.
While this is an incredible thing, this untethered artistic freedom, it can create chaos. It can create unbelievable worlds, unbelievable movement, things that are jarring to the audience.
So to combat this, we tether ourselves with science. We use science and the world we know as a backbone, to ground ourselves in something relatable and recognizable. “Finding Nemo” is an excellent example of this. A major portion of the movie takes place underwater.
But how do you make it look underwater? In early research and development, we took a clip of underwater footage and recreated it in the computer. Then we broke it back down to see which elements make up that underwater look.
One of the most critical elements was how the light travels through the water. So we coded up a light that mimics this physics — first, the visibility of the water, and then what happens with the color. Objects close to the eye have their full, rich colors.
As light travels deeper into the water, we lose the red wavelengths, then the green wavelengths, leaving us with blue at the far depths. In this clip you can see two other important elements. The first is the surge and swell, or the invisible underwater current that pushes the bits of particulate around in the water.
The second is the caustics. These are the ribbons of light, like you might see on the bottom of a pool, that are created when the sun bends through the crests of the ripples and waves on the ocean’s surface.
Here we have the fog beams. These give us color depth cues, but also tells which direction is up in shots where we don’t see the water surface. The other really cool thing you can see here is that we lit that particulate only with the caustics, so that as it goes in and out of those ribbons of light, it appears and disappears, lending a subtle, magical sparkle to the underwater.
You can see how we’re using the science — the physics of water, light and movement — to tether that artistic freedom. But we are not beholden to it. We considered each of these elements and which ones had to be scientifically accurate and which ones we could push and pull to suit the story and the mood.
We realized early on that color was one we had some leeway with. So here’s a traditionally colored underwater scene. But here, we can take Sydney Harbor and push it fairly green to suit the sad mood of what’s happening.