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Shining a New Light on Pixar

Bill Desowitz reports back from Pixar about how global illumination is powering the upcoming Monsters University and The Blue Umbrella.

Sulley and Mike in Monsters University. All images ©2013 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

There are a couple of firsts for Pixar with its upcoming Monsters University (June 21): it's the first prequel focusing on an origin story with Mike and Sulley meeting as Scare rivals in college before becoming buddies at Monsters, Inc., and it's the first time Pixar has utilized global illumination as part of a new lighting system to deliver greater levels of realism. In fact, global illumination is a strong component of the new short, The Blue Umbrella, which marks Pixar's first foray into photo-realism.

Last month, I previewed the first 40 minutes of Monsters at Pixar along with Saschka Unseld's wonderfully romantic and inventive short about a blue and red umbrella that meet by chance during a rainstorm. The city comes alive at night where the landscape has tiny faces and is made all the more lush by neon lights hitting reflective surfaces.

Global illumination in the past had been render intensive and limited to a single bounce. But for Monsters, Pixar doubled the rendering power and turned the bounce on everything (fur, cloth, grass, trees, water) with ray-tracing that could handle organic objects. There are now 300 to 500 intersecting sources of light, which can be viewed from all angles in a special browser by JC Kalache, the lighting DP.

(Left to right) Mike and Sulley amongst other monsters.

The shadows and bright spots are all in the right place and become a natural part of the scene. It's a lot less complex as well with shadows no longer having to be drawn on top of a scene. And simulators create six additional lights in the new system with their own unique characteristics. For example, the three primaries -- red, blue and green -- comprise the "scare lights" for scare moments.

In addition, there's a paint system that allows artists to paint on lights to pursue richness, including spherical lights for characters. Plus there's now previs lighting capability that allows the exportation of spherical lighting for character to the sets department so they can look at them in different lighting conditions for the first time before it goes further down the pipeline.

The Monsters University campus.

On Monsters there was a more choreographed use of lighting with Mike and Sulley stepping in and out of the shadows for dramatic emphasis. This hidden vs. exposed light strategy accentuates the rivalry between the two characters. Global illumination is not only more efficient but also a more collaborative way of conveying characterization through lighting.

But of course story is still king at Pixar. When one door closes, another door opens. That's the central metaphor for Monsters University, in which Mike Wazowski, the little one-eyed green monster, dreams of becoming a Scarer. Yet we already know that's not going to happen. In Monsters, Inc., the big blue furry Sulley is top Scarer and Mike's his sarcastic sidekick. But how did Mike get from point A to point B?

"In the case of Mike's story, it's very much about someone coming up against a failure," suggests first-time director Dan Scanlon (story artist on Toy Story 3 and Cars). "We hope it doesn't end that way because of the new information that we've learned about Mike and how much it means to him.

"We realized that Sulley's a really nice guy in the first film but here he's a likable jerk. We're all different at 18. And so we wanted it to be a story about how these guys became who they are. The fun with all these characters was to reverse them: 'You used to be like that?'"

Pixar has built a whole new ambitious collegiate world around Mike and Sulley, with 400 new characters (including Squishy, the lump of gummy candy, and Art, the hippy Muppet-like creature). This meant rewriting a more efficient hair and cloth simulator. "We tackled hair, cloth and water in previous Pixar movies, but here the biggest challenge was backpacks," adds Scanlon."There were so many students wearing backpacks and on fur it's so dense and has to react."

A higher energy level and slight changes in design made Mike and Sulley seem younger. They're thinner, have more vibrant colors and less blemishes. On top of that, Mike wears a retainer and a baseball cap. The trick was upping the look and performance without betraying the look of the monster world created in Monsters, Inc.

There was a crafty Monsterfication of this Ivy League-inspired collegiate world with faces encrusted throughout the architectural design and ivy by production designer Ricky Vega Nierva, who proclaims, "When story zigs, we zag." Indeed, there's incredible detail among the trapezoid brick designs, surrounded by the autumnal beauty of trees and grass. They had to invent an aesthetic history for the campus, with a Quad and burned out grass and cobblestone walkways leading to iconic places.

But the Scare School is the centerpiece, run by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), a scary female in a male-dominated profession. In fact, the character underwent a last-minute redesign from staid patriarchal figure to inspired giant centipede/dragon-like with 30 legs and spectacular wingspan.

Dean Hardscrabble.

Speaking of inspiration, Unseld, a TD on Brave and Toy Story 3, got the idea for The Blue Umbrella when he came upon a broken umbrella in the gutter in San Francisco. The German-born animator with a fondness for rain made his short a love story in the rain. But he never considered a photo-real look until he showed a test he shot for a proposed music video during his verbal pitch about a city that comes to life.

"I had filmed a few places I had seen around my block, loaded them onto the computer and then animated them to a song," Unseld relates. "And there was a magic to the perception in the first five seconds to it being real. So it was during that pitching process that I realized there was something unique about this and we all started thinking, 'What if we do the whole thing photoreal?'"

BLUE and RED from The Blue Umbrella.

But it was stylized with an impressionistic use of color and light akin to Chungking Express. Unseld used the traditional Pixar pipeline for setting up shots during the first phase of his short but then re-recorded the shots after animation using a "dummy camera." With hand-held, he was able to polish the camera movement. In addition to the proprietary Presto software at Pixar, the team used Katana for lighting and Nuke for compositing.

The global illumination helped achieve the real world look of everyday street objects having faces and people walking with their umbrellas. Their faces are obscured, however, and the umbrellas are black except blue and red, whose faces are simple black marks.

The use of deep compositing, in which images are layered with three-dimensional data, added greater depth of field.

"Setting it at night worked in our favor and rain added complexity and detail," Unseld explains. "And using shallow depth of field offered a beauty and you didn't have to build the city to infinity. The reality of everything being evenly lit in daylight in the beginning and staying photo-real throughout at night with neon makes it magical. I wanted it to be bolder and more artistic than typical animated movies."

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.