Monday, December 10, 2012

Visit from Pixar Director of Photography, Erik Smitt

Doing a bit of blog catch-up...
Back in October, Erik Smitt, a long-time employee of Pixar Studios, visited us here at SCAD-Atlanta. Erik is currently the Director of Photography on the upcoming Pixar animation "The Good Dinosaur," to be released in 2014. Erik visited classrooms and held a workshop and portfolio review, giving feedback to students on their work and answering questions. He also gave a presentation on digital lighting, and here a few highlights.
Erik's presentation revolved around the central idea that the primary purpose of lighting is to further the story. It was not unlike the presentation given by Kim White. Not surprising, as Kim is also a DP at Pixar. (Kim visited SCAD-Atlanta at the end of the year last year.) It’s clear that at Pixar the importance of the story, and how each element contributes and furthers the story,  is kept at the front of each person’s mind, all the way along the animation production pipeline, and lighting is no exception to that rule. This topic is my favorite. It is to me what is the most exciting and creative part of lighting, and I likely can never hear enough about it.
Erik began with a look at some moments in traditional cinematography, using films such as Revolutionary Road, and The Green Mile as example. He used the film There Will Be Blood to illustrate how some of the rules we hear can be broken (such as ‘don’t shoot at high noon; don’t put the focus in the dead center’) – if it is right for the moment. If you can use an uncomfortable or harsh feeling, then break those rules.

There Will Be Blood (2007). The coerced baptism and humiliation of Plainview as he is forced to admit publicly his sins. A blindingly white cross dominates the frame, centrally located and positioned to literally rest upon the head of the kneeling Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Louis). Never mind avoiding those tangents!
Erik discussed the use of color in Pixar films as symbolic of certain people, situations, or moods. For example in Up the color pink is associated with Ellie. Frequently it is seen in combination with her. After her death, Carl returns from the hospital at sunset. Slowly and imperceptibly,  the last bit of pink fades from the light as the sun dips below the horizon. Get your tissues ready and see this clip - watch through to the end to see the scene mentioned, paying careful attention to the use of pink throughout – the intensity of it, the amount of it … :

Erik also analyzed several scenes from Toy Story 3. A great article about the use and symbolism of color and light in this film is found here:

Another use of light is to help direct the eye. Ask yourself - what do you want to look at, first, second, third? Everything has a place and it is all thought out. In this regards often the background needs to be visually simplified or minimized so that the viewer can focus on the main character(s). This can be done with simply less light back there, or with atmospheric perspective, among other means. Unfortunately I do not have the great before-and-after images shown at the presentation. A picture really is worth a thousand words. Another point made was that you do not need to show everything all of the time. Perhaps you hide something the audience wants to see, then reveal it later, creating tension.

A few highlights from the Question and Answer  portion:
Q - What helps to develop your skill lighting?
A – Painting and photography. Painting helps to develop your eye.
His advice – “Paint as much as you can, photograph as much as you can.”

Q- What does Pixar look for in a lighting portfolio?
A – Strong visual skills. Show a good understanding of light, form, and color. Use color and light to make something visually appealing. Pixar in particular looks for examples of character lighting. Include an animated shot with the character looking appealing.

Favorite quotes from the presentation  –
“We (lighters) give the audience something to feel rather than something to listen to.”
 “When you are painting, you are really painting the light.”

All in all an interesting and informative presentation. And very nice of Erik to take the time to come by our campus. Much appreciated!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

SIGGRAPH 2012, first courses

I'm here attending SIGGRAPH 2012 with a full conference pass and as usual, there is more to do and see than I can possible fit in each day. I need to make a few clones of myself. I'm a bit behind on a daily report of sights and events but here goes.
The conference kicked off on Sunday for those who were attending courses. I attended a course "Matte Painting Through the Ages." The presenter was Craig Barron, the author of  The Invisible Art. The Invisible Art is a large, beautiful book about matte painting originally published in 2002. (I'd recommend it to everyone but for its shocking sticker price of $500. Yes I didn't misplace a 0, that's $500 for a new one, though you can find a used one for around $150). The course covered quite alot but here are some of the highlights which stuck out to me.
One of the largest thoughts I took away was how much matte painting has been changing over the years, until it has transformed into very little painting in the traditional sense at all. "Painted" today doesn't mean what "painted" used to to the matte painter of yester-year. Clearly artists today use the computer, but they do not use paint programs but rather edit and manipulate photographs - combining them, color correcting them, doing some paint over maybe but not illustrating from scratch. An illustration from scratch just doesn't have the level of realism required by today's audiences. Go Photoshop.
Even more, however, while in the early years, matte painting was literally large paintings placed behind the actors to extend the set or make them look like they were in another environment, today most set extension is done with digital sets. As the speaker traversed the years, as he came to modern times he spoke of digital set extension, of modeling (in 3D) environments and rendering them with global illumination or "baking in" the look of global illumination. ("Baking in" means painting those lighting effects directly into the textures themselves.) The speaker felt that the future of matte painting was to create 3D environments with computer graphics. At the present time, he added, the budget isn't there so sometimes they are 3D environments, other times painted. When I think about this, however, I have to think about how the artists who make full CG 3D set extensions and backgrounds are modelers, texture painters, shading artists, and lighters. So to the extend that the background is a fully realized 3D set and not a flat image, the matte painter is out of a job really. But those working in the industry know this, which is why fewer traditional matte painters (if any) are needed on most shows.
What is around and what will no doubt stay around is a hybrid approach in which a "painted" image (an image crafted primarily from photo-manipulation) is projected onto simplified geometry in a 3D scene. The advantage of this is that the camera can move and the various background elements will have parallax. You'd be surprised just how far you can take this too, before things start to fall apart and the illusion is revealed. This approach isn't new - ILM was doing this back in The Phantom Menace (1999).

A surprising discovery for me however was just how related matte painting is to lighting. Of course, when pointed out it seems rather obvious but not being a matte painter myself, I always thought their concerns rather different from mine, but it turns out there is much in common. The speaker often pointed out how the matte painter was concerned with how light moved in the image - the time of day, the angle of the light. Other concerns were related to lighting - the mood created, and most importantly, how the image helped to tell the story (it is all about the story isn't it). Similar to the digital lighter, the matte painter has to understand how things look in the real world, such as how atmospheric haze affects the appearance of things. Also the recommendations Craig Barron made to aspiring matte painters are exactly the same ones I would make to aspiring digital lighters:
Study traditional paintings, such as painters from the Renaissance and the Impressionist movement. Study nature; we are behind monitors too much - get outside more. Develop traditional art skills like painting and drawing (even if you don't have to paint or draw that much). Make sure you understand color, color theory, and composition.

My two favorite quotes from the lecture:
"Our job is to help the director tell the story. We are not there to attract attention to the visual effect."
"It is imperative to get on location and to get away from the computer."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Thoughts on Industry Trends in Digital Lighting

While writing Illuminated Pixels, I interviewed friends/associates  who worked on many different kinds of projects to find out what techniques the studios are currently employing, and with what frequency. It was interesting to me to find that today's digital lighters have more options in technique than ever before.

I had originally thought that many of the old tricks weren't really used much anymore, if even at all. For example, at Sony Imageworks, where I previously worked, they have completely left behind many methods which used to be standard, and entirely embraced newer methods. More specifically, they are now render with a dedicated ray-tracer which does ray-traced global illumination, and do not use things like scanline rendering, depth-mapped shadows, or cheated reflections at all. With a dedicated ray-tracer, that would be silly - they use ray-traced shadows and ray-traced reflections. I wondered if this was common for most of the studios.

As a general trend, the move has been towards greater realism in lighting and shading. However, I was surprised to find that some cheats which I thought perhaps were obsolete were alive and well, such as using reflection cameras to cheat a planar reflection (refer to the book if this technique isn't familiar). It really just depended on the studio. It depends on the level of realism they want, the amount of creative control they want, the amount of time they are able to dedicate towards rendering, and the abilities of the artists they hire, etc.

So today, depending on the project and the studio, digital lighters may employ both newer techniques and older techniques. To me, this is both fun and exciting. It also is why it is good to know a variety of techniques, and furthermore to know the pros and cons of them, so you can best decide which one to use on a particular project (if you are doing the deciding) or at the least be experienced and competent in a variety of approaches, which will employers will appreciate.

Monday, July 2, 2012

"Houston... the Eagle has landed!"
~ Neil Armstrong, Astronaut

It's official - the book is complete and has been sent to the printers. It should take approximately a month to print and distribute, which means that it *should* be available in time for this year's Siggraph.
Here is the cover (front, back, and spine):

I am currently putting together a companion website:
My plan for this website is to have it continuously evolve. To start with it will have sample scene files, a forum, links to other interesting and related sites as well as links to contributor websites, and a link to this blog. I am not a tweeter so don't expect one of those, ever. ;-)
I hope people feel free to contribute thoughts/suggestions about the book as well as add their own digital lighting tips and tricks, and examples of their work.

At the present time I am also planning a book launch / book signing. I'd like something fun and celebratory rather than too self congratulatory. This particular project has been a long time coming and its "birth" deserves a party!
~ Virginia

Monday, May 28, 2012

Looks like the process of editing takes much longer than I realized. The past 6 months we have been in the editing process. One big delay was that the book was on hold for almost 4 months as the editor was busy. Additionally gaining rights to some of the film images was a longer-than-expected process. Then once a new editor was on board, we discovered the book was 150 pages longer than it was profitable to print. After a quick re-write of some sections, removal of others, and another round of editing, I am happy report to we are moving forward again and progressing with layout. All the images have been cleared for publishing, including a large handful from Disney/Pixar and Sony Imageworks, who graciously granted the rights to reproduce them in the book.

Currently the book will release around Siggraph. I am very much hoping for a pre-Siggraph release but we may not make it, in which case it should be out shortly after, barring some (more) unforseen delays.
For those who have been kind enough to pre-order, they have received repeated emails about the delay. Now there's the behind-the-scenes story.

Removed sections of the book will be available on the companion website:
along with sample scene files from imagery in the book, links to contributor websites, and anything else lighting related which looks interesting or useful.