Talk sheds light on Pixar animation process
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Danielle Feinberg leads a turtle-and-hare life. Make that turtle, hare and hair life.
From her earliest voyage as an 8-year-old Boulder, Colo., kid digging into the digital realm by programming a logo-creating turtle to her award-winning, virtual-light direction of "WALL-E," Feinberg -- Pixar Animation Studios director of photography for lighting -- has kept pace with the industry's achingly slow/stunningly fast dichotomy.
At a recent Lafayette library Science Cafe appearance, facts about rendering hair for Pixar's "Brave" rendered the most impressive figures.
"We had to rewrite the whole simulator for Brave's hair," she said. "It took almost three years just to do her hair."
With the average Pixar film taking five years to produce, the percentage devoted to the lead character's springy, windblown tresses may seem overindulgent or perfectionist. But that is exactly why Feinberg said she loves working at Pixar.
"We throw all our resources at writing the best story," she said. "Then, lots of late nights making the films. I like working where the dedication to excellence is so high."
Stepping through the process used to turn great stories into blockbuster films, Feinberg performed a verbal version of "storyboarding," the quick gesture drawings of a movie used by animators to work out possible "bugs" in the narrative.
After a script receives the green light, simple black-and-white sketches (with a "scratch track" often voiced by Pixar employees) are animated.
The moving storyboard gives the modeling department the bones for building their 3-D world. Revolving around x, y and z axes, a simple point-plotted line becomes an ornate column, and then, a table leg. With a click, Feinberg demonstrated how the computer remembers only the points and grabbing them, she made the leg swell, swirl, shrink and sway.
"We have to be careful what we tell the computer to do, because it will try to do it," she said, showing how the wrong "clicks" could shear off an arm or cause the triangular elements composing a single cloth to blossom into mounds of mobile laundry.
After modeling, which includes applying "noise" to mess up "too computery" images and mask inorganic seams, the character department articulates the movements.
Software developments in the last few years and animators' increased kinesthetic knowledge -- plus the input of experts Pixar brings in as advisers -- have boosted the believability of animals, people and the ever-present hair set in motion.
Camera placement is the next step, and Feinberg said directors can't just think about cool explosions. They have to think story. A camera "wandering" into a restaurant and panning right and left is a character searching for a buddy.
A camera racing into a restaurant, looking right and left quickly, then darting out the back door with a brief, backward glance, is a character being chased.
Animators work in layers. The first is "blocking," applying behaviors to make cars flock or barrels of monkeys tumble like marbles. The almighty hair challenge begins by stripping away 95 percent of a character's hair. The remaining "key hairs" are then animated according to the desired effect: "pouffy" fetlocks on a horse are one thing, hair subject to hood removal is another.
Simulators strip the bugs out of the film, special effects turns a particle system into fireworks, explosions and other groovy "contact events," and shading uses trigonometry (there's a reason for that class after all) to define color and texture.
"Lighting establishes time, mood, place and guides the viewer's eye," Feinberg said. "I control all the light in the world."
It's a humorous statement: literally true and perhaps part of the payback for all the midnight oil burned at Pixar's former Del Monte canning plant warehouse in Emeryville. But if Feinberg sits atop an empire of lighting, the rows of processors rendering each film's files are the underlying mountain.
"We have 20,000 crazy processors. There are 24 frames for one second of film. The images are roughly 2,000 pixels across, 800 vertical. The computer has to sort each pixel's relationship to the camera, it's color, and all the other things done to it."
A frame from "Finding Nemo" could take up to 60 hours of processing, Feinberg said.
Questions from the audience revealed the darker side of her job. "Visits aren't possible. We've had ideas stolen, so it's a closed situation," she said.
Internships are mostly for college students, and like the 22-year-old she was when Steve Jobs once popped into her cubicle to look at parts of "A Bug's Life," mentors abound. Feinberg recalled Jobs' incredible influence: "He made you think the bad thing you went in to find out about was the best thing in the world and you were destined for success."