There’s a reason it’s Lights, Camera, Action

By Sarah Bogaards
Originally published: March 27, 2019 in The Campus Chronicle

Danielle Feinberg works at Pixar, but when she’s successful, you might never notice it.

As the director of lighting and photography, the goal of her work is to keep viewers from noticing what she has done and keep them immersed in the film.

With 19 years and counting at Pixar, Feinberg gave an insightful presentation at the DMACC West Campus for ciWeek about how code and physics help create stories everyone has come to know. 

Although the effects of lighting are nuanced and often unnoticed in the final product, Feinberg demonstrated how vital they are to the film. She compared a scene from “Toy Story 3” before and after lighting was added, and only by seeing the before image first does the viewer recognize both obvious and subtle changes to the lighting as well as the level of work involved in making those changes undetectable to viewers.

Photo courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

Feinberg is from Boulder, Colorado and said she was exposed to both design and coding by the age of 10. She studied computer science at Harvard, but set her eyes on Pixar early and focused on computer graphics and animation.

After working on several movies, Feinberg said she found her passion in lighting.

 “I fell in love with the moment when the world comes to life,” she said.

Most recently, Feinberg was director of lighting for “Coco,” which places the Day of the Dead holiday and Mexican culture at the forefront, as well as an abundance of lighting work for the Pixar employee. 

Shots like the one that reveals the land of the dead for the first time speaks to the skill of artists to design a world and the computer scientists to bring it to life. Feinberg said by the end, “Coco” had 8.5 million lights programmed into it, more than any other Pixar film.

She discussed the undertaking of creating the land of the dead, where the film director’s only instructions were to make it tall and to “create a world like no one has ever seen before.” She took this piece of the world, stripped it to its bones tp then rebuild it for the audience.

Feinberg said the appearance of the marigold bridge, which connected the land of the living and that of the dead was determined by physics simulations. Up close, a particle simulation was used to make each petal move during a scene where a character gets stuck trying to run across the bridge. 

In a landscape shot, she explained how wind and erosion were simulated so the bridge still appeared to be made of petals by floating across the length of the bridge and cascading down like supporting pillars.

Feinberg acknowledged the relationship between science and art in her position several times while she held the floor at ciWeek. 

“Technology gets us 50 percent of the way there, and then the artists come in and get us the other 50 percent,” she said. 

On a research trip to Scotland in preparation for “Brave,” Feinberg and her colleagues discovered an immense amount and variety of vegetation. Upon return, the way Pixar animates plants had to be reinvented: the art department designed dozens of templates to showcase the varieties of moss and lichen, and Feinberg detailed how graphics programmer Julien Guertault conceived the animation method “Wonder Moss” which is still used by Pixar today.

“We can create anything we want and sometimes that can be crippling,” Feinberg said.

A crowd of all ages filled the main atrium of DMACC’s West Campus to hear Feinberg speak of her experiences and give a crash course on animated lighting and photography. Outside of her work, she mentioned that she co-owns a California doughnut shop which has won on a Food Network show.

This year’s events marked the 10-year anniversary of ciWeek which began under Anthony Paustian, provost at the West campus. He said the theme of ciWeek 2019, “Small Steps to Giant Leaps,” was partly inspired by the simultaneous 50-year anniversary of the first U.S. moon landing. 

Watch: Feinberg’s TED Talk on her work at Pixar

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