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!

1 comment:

  1. Hello Virginia,

    The movie "Up" has been one of my favorite movies for a while now, but I did not notice the pink association with the Ellie character. Thank you so much for pointing this out. I very much enjoy understanding the depth and intentions of any creation.

    - Thomas