Light animated worlds with Pixar’s Cinematography

This week in Zeferino Professional Lighting we want to take a look at the secrets of animation cinematography.

“We use science to create something wonderful. We use story and artistic touch to get us to a place of wonder.”

Danielle Feinberg was studying computer programming at Harvard when a professor screened the first Pixar computer animations in her class. A new world opened up for the young engineer; she could marry her two passions, coding and art.

Feinberg’s ambitions took her to the place where it all started. Now Pixar’s director of photography, she has worked on many modern animated classics, from A Bug’s Life to Toy Story 2. She helped bring the underwater universe to life in Finding Nemo, an achievement that rested largely on the ability to render how light travels through the ocean.

nemo jellyfish

The lighting process for computer animated films, which, because it involves actual lighting set-ups inside the computer, is more similar to a live-action director of photography than a computer animator. If you don’t put in lights, the final image that ends up on film would be black.

Strict realism is less important than believability. You need to think about what it might look like in real life, but then balance that out with what you need artistically and for the story. But the end result is always rooted in science. We use science and the world we know to ground ourselves in something relatable and recognizable.

Finding Nemo

nemo f

In Finding Nemo‘s early development, the Pixar team took a clip of underwater footage and recreated it in the computer. We broke it back down to see which elements make up that underwater look. How the light travels through the water turned out to be one of the most critical elements. Then they wrote a code to create a light that mimicked the physics of underwater light, controlling the visibility and variations in color. Objects close to the eye have their full, but as light travels deeper into the water, we lose the red wavelengths, then the green wavelengths, leaving us with blue at the far depths.

The water movement was another matter entirely. One important element to the feeling of being underwater is the surge and swell, or the invisible underwater current that pushes the bits of particulate around in the water.



Animating WALL-E was incredibly challenging because the robot lacks a traditional face. And when Feinberg went in to light his scenes, she discovered a major issue.

We got so geeked-out on making WALL-E, this convincing robot that we made his binoculars practically optically perfect,”. This meant that the triple lenses they had designed inside his binoculars—his veritable eyes—reflected light in a distracting manner. He was starting to look glassy-eyed, which 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.

Finally, in testing, a light was added that accidentally leaks into WALL-E’s eyes, effectively lighting up his gray aperture blades. Suddenly, those aperture blades were poking through that reflection. 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.

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