This Thanksgiving, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures’ latest film “The Good Dinosaur” will premier in theaters. The film, which comes on the heels of the partnership’s acclaimed “Inside Out,” which grossed a total of $831 million, imagines a world in which the asteroid that led to the extinction of the planet’s dinosaur population never hit.
“We like to ask a lot of ‘what if’ questions at Pixar,” Jonathan Pytko, a lighting technical director for the film, said. “What if dinosaurs never went extinct? What if a rat could cook? And so on.”
It is “The Good Dinosaur” that brought Pytko, whose 12-year career at Pixar Animation includes lighting the sets of the Disney animated films “Ratatouille,” “Brave” and “The Incredibles,” to the Walsh Building’s art department, where he gave a short presentation on the new film, which finished post-production only a few weeks ago. The event — part of a publicity tour by Disney of East Coast colleges — visited Georgetown this past Monday.
The film follows Arlo, a juvenile Apatosaurus who, washed away from his family by a river, meets a human child named Spot and attempts to find his way home. The film, which takes place entirely outdoors, is rendered completely by computer graphics like the Pixar animated films before it.
Lighting, in the context of a computer animated film, is therefore an especially abstract concept. Mainly, it involves using Pixar’s state-of-the-art proprietary software to change the color balance of each rendered shot, or more specifically, placing light sources, arranging shadows, drawing detail and configuring color palettes to suit a scene’s mood.
The intricate process of treating the film for lighting, Pytko said, is made up of two components: master lighting and shot lighting.
“With master lighting, we’re really trying to get about 60 to 70 percent of the look of a shot in master lighting, so that an entire chunk of shots has a similar feel,” Pytko said. “Shot lighting, then, is the individual treatment of the shots in the image. Those are what are assigned to individual shot lighters.”
Most of the work of lighting shots go to technicians on Pytko’s team, though it is a common practice for directors like Pytko to reserve a shot or two for themselves.
Nevertheless, Pytko, who graduated from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale with a degree in computer animation, does not see himself as particularly computer-savvy.
“I don’t do a lot of coding. We try to add a bit of an artistic interface into our programs to make it more than just typing numbers all day. Even then, we’re constantly balancing render times with how we want things to look,” Pytko said.
Such a delicate balance in each shot is only a piece of the extensive editing process into which each storyboarded image enters. Each scene moves from a hand-drawn image to a photoshop-rendered color study to a three-dimensional graphic rendering, which then undergoes coloring, spatial rendering and the addition of special effects.
“Lighting is one of the last things that go into a given scene, though the lighting team is on board for most of the production of the film,” Pytko said. “We started work on ‘The Good Dinosaur’ two and a half years ago.”
Despite the lengthy amounts of time devoted to animating shots, some of which can reach upwards of 100 hours, Pixar’s technology is constantly changing. In his talk, Pytko explained an especially new technique of spatially rendering clouds in a shot so that light projected from the sky is broken into shadows automatically.
“Usually what happens is that we would do effects in the past that would take a lot of work, like getting cloud shadows to fall on the set, but now that it’s in 3D space we are able to do it more naturally. It wasn’t something we were unable to do before, but it opens up possibilities for us to experiment and play with it,” Pytko said, “There are very few happy accidents because most everything in our process is intentional, but they’re always rewarding.”
Constantly balancing on animation technology’s “bleeding edge,” as Pytko said, also means constantly retiring outdated animation methods from as recent as a few years back.
“The nature of the technology that we have to work with is that it gets better and better,” Pytko said.
Constantly changing methods, therefore, make for inevitable retrospection for any film’s lighting team.
“We’re never done until we run out of time, and even then, we always want to do more,” Pytko said. “But we’re still really proud of how the movie came out and how it looks. I actually love going to opening night, sitting in the back, and watching for what people laugh at, what they cry at. It’s a rewarding experience, even if we’d all love to go back and keep tinkering and working on it to make it better. But that’s what the next movie’s for.”
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