Shining a New Light on Pixar
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.
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.
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."