How Pixar Unlocks Imagination With Technology

By pushing the boundaries of animation, Pixar's filmmaking increasingly mimics reality.

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They posted flyers across Pixar's campus in Emeryville, CA. Flyers for low cost dental plans, for missing eyeballs, for "Scream a Little Scream," the new musical put on by the imaginary students at Monsters University. The colorful pieces of paper are stapled to a pillar outside The Steve Jobs Building, which has been transformed into a student union for monsters--replete with banners for monster fraternities and sororities--to put the people of Pixar into the proper mindset for the release of their latest film. 

From directors and animators to cinematographers and lighters, everyone is held accountable for complete immersion into Monsters University. "There's a mantra that the company has that story is king," said Christine Waggoner, a simulation supervisor for the movie. 

In Pixar's animation, storytelling relies on a complex, software-driven architecture to bring its stories to life. Waggoner, for example, spends her days on the computer tweaking algorithms to ensure that tree branches and their leaves tremble realistically when an oversized monster saunters by on the campus quad. But by operating in a medium that evolves at the speed of technology, the company has encountered cases where existing software can hinder its ability to tell a story as much as it supports it. 

Lighting in particular presented a major challenge, said Jean-Claude Kalache, the director of photography for Monsters University. An existing toolkit allowed his team unlimited possibility for their lighting setups-provided they had the time to execute. "We had not one light, not two," Kalache said. "We had hundreds of lights." But every hour spent placing those lights in every scene was an hour removed from thinking of alternative ways to express the story through lighting. "The traditional technology we had became a roadblock," he added. 

Researching with a colleague, Kalache discovered a remedy in a software called "global illumination," which, to put it simply, imitates lights in real life. Rather than meticulously placing hundreds of lights once only to find that they wanted something different, global illumination allowed Kalache and his team to place only a few lights and move them around, adjusting the lighting in the scene nearly as fluidly as in live-action movies. 

The new technology not only made them more efficient, but it enabled them to be more creative, providing them with time to experiment and invest more energy into how the lighting reflected the mood of a particular scene. "Those were discussions that rarely happened in the past and if they happened, they came very late," Kalache said. "Now we felt we're a lot more artistic in our setups and we have a lot more time to explore." 

Even the less technically-focused filmmakers have found their work benefits from these advances. 

"The interesting thing with the newer technology is that...it imitates real life much more," said Saschka Unseld, director of The Blue Umbrella, a new Pixar short that precedes Monsters University. "So what happens is something we normally never had--happy accidents." 

In Unseld's film, a love story between two umbrellas, there's a climactic moment in which a red umbrella, full of empathy, hovers over a defeated blue one. Shielding it from the rain, its warm red reflects in the other's wet blue. So prominent and emotionally poignant, the shot seemed overtly purposeful. Except it wasn't. 

"The lighter just switched on the lights, rendered it and that naturally happened," Unseld said.

In place of carefully plotted light direction, global illumination enabled more serendipitous artistic exploration, elevating the technological toolkit to a level equivalent to Pixar filmmakers' imaginations.
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