Pixar. Need I say more? You know their movies, and you love them. It seems current college students in particular have a deep affinity for these films, being the first generation to have grown up with their now-classics such as “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles.”
But how does Pixar create their art? Who are the men and women that make the visual beauty of these computer-animated films possible?
Last week, I crammed myself into a packed Angell Hall auditorium along with dozens of other University students to meet a Pixar wizard in the flesh: Jonathan Pytko. His presentation gave insight into his career in digital lighting, as well as a look at Pixar’s production process. He also gave us a preview of “The Good Dinosaur,” their latest project.
A veteran Lighting Lead, Pytko joined the Emeryville, CA-based company to work on 2004’s “The Incredibles” (a hushed wave of excitement and “oh my god I love that movie so much” whispers rushed over the crowd when he listed that bullet point on his resume) and has since lit films like “Ratatouille,” “Up” and “Brave.”
“I really like to make things with my hands. I like to build models and paint and draw, play with Legos, and all that stuff,” he said in a post-presentation interview with The Michigan Daily. “All that stuff is great, but you never have that piece, the piece that you’re missing, or you don’t have the color for the painting you’re trying to do. When I was in high school, I got my first computer and I started playing around with (computer animation). And you have all the colors, and whatever’s in your head. If you can get it in there, you can get it out on the computer, so it’s kind of this limitless opportunity.”
Pytko began his presentation by showing us a few proof-of-concept shots that his team worked on in pre-production of “The Good Dinosaur.” They were drop-dead gorgeous moving images of natural scenes: a leafy twig with beaded water droplets and a river flowing through a mountainous landscape. He explained that the visual aesthetic of “The Good Dinosaur” is rooted in landscape, noting that the film’s Director of Photography comes from a background of landscape painting. Pytko also mentioned that the team used U.S. Geological Survey data to inspire and sculpt the film’s backgrounds.
“Those initial shots take a really long time because we’re trying to figure out the shot, but we’re also trying to figure out the overall pipeline for the show,” he said. “It’s not just about that shot, we’re trying to figure out the bigger challenges. It’s usually months and months of work.”
Later in the presentation, Pytko screened around seven-to-eight minutes of the film divided into a few different clips. Each of the clips centered on protagonists Arlo, a cute green Apatosaurus, and Spot, a mute cave-boy. One emotional scene involved fireflies and howling at the night sky. Another, surprisingly, involved a classic Western aesthetic, drawing visual inspiration from VistaVision-era Westerns like “The Searchers” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Yet another (possibly the most beautiful sequence of computer animation I have ever witnessed) involved Arlo and Spot running through a giant flock of seagulls.
Each scene was lit absolutely beautifully, and Pytko gave us some insight into the process of lighting scenes in a digital space. He used terms heard frequently in real-life lighting like “key” and “fill,” but explained that there are distinct differences in virtual lighting.
“We try to start from some realistic places. We start with physically based lights, so they sort of try to react like actual lights. But then because it’s in a virtual space, we have all these ways to break that relationship and do what’s important for the visual story,” he said. He noted that digital lighting artists have the ability to decide which objects are affected by which lights no matter where they’re located, among other techniques that would be impossible in the real world.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, these clips of “The Good Dinosaur” were the best-looking animated films I have ever seen. The film’s natural features, rushing water, tall grass and night sky all felt photorealistic, yet blended perfectly with the more cartoony character models. The film is on another level of detail and gorgeous visual composition, even in comparison to recent beautiful Pixar projects like “Brave.”
Pytko told me that the production process on the film from beginning to end took six years. That’s an astronomical amount of time (and money) to spend on one movie.
“The Good Dinosaur” will be released in theaters nationwide on Nov. 25.