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.
In this scene, it’s really important we see deep into the underwater, so we understand what the East Australian Current is, that the turtles are diving into and going on this roller coaster ride. So we pushed the visibility of the water well past anything you would ever see in real life.
Because in the end, we are not trying to recreate the scientifically correct real world, we’re trying to create a believable world, one the audience can immerse themselves in to experience the story.
We use science to create something wonderful. We use story and artistic touch to get us to a place of wonder. This guy, WALL-E, is a great example of that. He finds beauty in the simplest things. But when he came in to lighting, we knew we had a big problem. We got so geeked-out on making WALL-E this convincing robot, that we made his binoculars practically optically perfect.
His binoculars are one of the most critical acting devices he has. He doesn’t have a face or even traditional dialogue, for that matter. So the animators were heavily dependent on the binoculars to sell his acting and emotions.
We started lighting and we realized the triple lenses inside his binoculars were a mess of reflections. He was starting to look glassy-eyed.
Now, glassy-eyed is a fundamentally awful thing when you are trying to convince an audience that a robot has a personality and he’s capable of falling in love.
So we went to work on these optically perfect binoculars, trying to find a solution that would maintain his true robot materials but solve this reflection problem.
So we started with the lenses. Here’s the flat-front lens, we have a concave lens and a convex lens.
And here you see all three together, showing us all these reflections. We tried turning them down, we tried blocking them, nothing was working.
You can see here, sometimes we needed something specific reflected in his eyes — usually Eve. So we couldn’t just use some faked abstract image on the lenses.
So here we have Eve on the first lens, we put Eve on the second lens, it’s not working. We turn it down, it’s still not working. And then we have our eureka moment.
We add a light to WALL-E that accidentally leaks into his eyes. You can see it light up these gray aperture blades. Suddenly, those aperture blades are poking through that reflection the way nothing else has.
Now we recognize WALL-E as having an eye. As humans we have the white of our eye, the colored iris and the black pupil.
Now WALL-E has the black of an eye, the gray aperture blades and the black pupil. Suddenly, WALL-E feels like he has a soul, like there’s a character with emotion inside.
Later in the movie towards the end, WALL-E loses his personality, essentially going dead. This is the perfect time to bring back that glassy-eyed look. In the next scene, WALL-E comes back to life. We bring that light back to bring the aperture blades back, and he returns to that sweet, soulful robot we’ve come to love.
(Video: WALL-E: Eva?)
There’s a beauty in these unexpected moments — when you find the key to unlocking a robot’s soul, the moment when you discover what you want to do with your life.
The jellyfish in “Finding Nemo” was one of those moments for me. There are scenes in every movie that struggle to come together. This was one of those scenes. The director had a vision for this scene based on some wonderful footage of jellyfish in the South Pacific.
As we went along, we were floundering. The reviews with the director turned from the normal look-and-feel conversation into more and more questions about numbers and percentages. Maybe because unlike normal, we were basing it on something in real life, or maybe just because we had lost our way.
But it had become about using our brain without our eyes, the science without the art. That scientific tether was strangling the scene.
But even through all the frustrations, I still believed it could be beautiful. So when it came in to lighting, I dug in.
As I worked to balance the blues and the pinks, the caustics dancing on the jellyfish bells, the undulating fog beams, something promising began to appear.
I came in one morning and checked the previous night’s work. And I got excited. And then I showed it to the lighting director and she got excited.
Soon, I was showing to the director in a dark room full of 50 people. In director review, you hope you might get some nice words, then you get some notes and fixes, generally.
And then, hopefully, you get a final, signaling to move on to the next stage. I gave my intro, and I played the jellyfish scene. And the director was silent for an uncomfortably long amount of time. Just long enough for me to think, “Oh no, this is doomed.”
And then he started clapping. And then the production designer started clapping. And then the whole room was clapping. This is the moment that I live for in lighting.
The moment where it all comes together and we get a world that we can believe in. We use math, science and code to create these amazing worlds. We use storytelling and art to bring them to life. It’s this interweaving of art and science that elevates the world to a place of wonder, a place with soul, a place we can believe in, a place where the things you imagine can become real — and a world where a girl suddenly realizes not only is she a scientist, but also an artist.