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Sharon Calahan Talks Lighting and Visual Development on ‘The Good Dinosaur’

Veteran Pixar DP explains how complex lighting studies and concept paintings done in Wyoming’s Big Sky country helped her capture the beauty of the outdoors in new ways never before seen at the studio.

Even at a studio like Pixar, filled to the rafters with a roster of talent greater than the 1927 Yankees, there are “go to people” whose experience and artistic eye bring even more to a project than their particular production expertise. At Pixar, one of those people is Sharon Calahan, whose work as visual developer and director of photography on the upcoming The Good Dinosaur was crucial in helping director Pete Sohn and producer Denise Ream turn the project around for the studio. Originally slated for a May 2014 release, the film, rewritten and retooled after Sohn and Ream took over the production, hits theatres this November 25th.

In her role not just as DP but as initial production designer and visual developer, Calahan’s immense artist talent has never been more apparent – her extensive and expansive body of scenic paintings, capturing the epic nature of some of Wyoming’s most beautiful vistas, played a vital role in bringing Sohn’s vision for a young dinosaur’s immersive journey across rivers, forests and prairies to the big screen.

In recent conversation following a presentation on her The Good Dinosaur efforts, I had a chance to speak to Calahan about her exhaustive search for new ways to capture not just the look, but the “feel” for the color, lighting and mood of the great outdoors.

Dan Sarto: The scope of the visual development work you’ve done on this film is tremendous. As a film’s DP [director of photography], are you always this involved to this degree in early 2D art production? Isn’t that the role of the production designer?

Sharon Calahan: Well, I did a bit on Ratatouille and on Cars 2, but I guess I don't usually showcase much of it. I probably had a little bit more of a role [visual development] on this film because I was on it a little earlier than I usually am, before we had a production designer. So, I filled a lot of that void. It was also a world I'm really familiar with and passionately in love with. I just kept painting, so yeah maybe it was a little bit more, but not drastically different than what I do on other films.

DS: When did you come onto the film?

SC: I came on about two years ago, almost to the day.

DS: In talking to a number of people on the film, they kind of winked at me and said quietly how excited they were when you came onto the film, meaning that with you coming on board, they knew everything was going to be OK…

SC: That’s so nice to hear. I do tend to grab hold of the rudder and find the true line.

DS: You made a comment in your presentation that I found very interesting and was hoping you could expand on a bit. You said that part of what you're trying to capture in your paintings is the fact that what our eye sees is different than what the camera sees. What are you referring to when you say that?

SC: A camera is limited by its dynamic range, which is smaller than what your eye is, as well as its sensors if it's a digital camera or emulsion if it's film. There are certain colors that a camera isn’t sensitive to that your eye is, and with a broader dynamic range your eye gathers more light and can pick up on more color nuance. One of my favorite things...I don't know if I should admit this, but I love it when I get my eyes dilated by the eye doctor because when your eyes are dilated, you can see colors you can't normally see. With the human eye, if you're sensitive to what you're seeing, there's so much more color out there than what a camera captures. I look at a photograph [on a research trip] and I'm always disappointed, because I remember what I saw. I look and it's like, “Oh, it didn't capture that color in the clouds that I'm seeing.” So I want to paint something to remember that with, how the cloud is greener on the bottom and is warmer on the side, because the camera just looks all kind of blue.

DS: Along those lines you also made a comment about how in your visual development paintings, you were trying to capture not just what you were seeing but how you felt when you were there. For example, whether it was cold, or misty. So you come back to the studio after a research trip to Big Sky country…how do your paintings translate into the work you do on the film? How are those grand vistas, the dark storm clouds, the morning sunlight hitting the forests, how is that transferred into how you light the film?

SC: Some of it is kind of like muscle memory, remembering color relationships or value relationships and how light changes over distance. Several years ago I realized that the tools for doing atmospheric perspective over distance weren't doing the right thing. I was out painting in Wyoming, trying to paint colors from a far distance. I had this Eureka moment, like, “Oh, now I know how to fix that tool because I needed to do this [what was being captured in her painting] and I can't [with Pixar’s then current digital tools].” A lot of times the paintings inform us, “Now I understand that light is changing color over distance. The sunlight is very different in the open than it is in the shadow, especially how the colors are filtering out over distance.” Just going through that exercise, I felt, “Cool, now I can get the tools to do what I want.” Sometimes it's just an emotional thing, or a muscle memory thing from being there and having painted it enough times that I don't have to struggle with it or think about it when I'm painting artwork for a scene. It allows me to just think about getting more emotion into the artwork because I'm thinking about other kinds of specifics of what the sunlight looks like that time of day.

DS: You emphasized the importance of lighting on these grand, expansive outdoor scenes. What was different about how you lit this film?

SC: For me, on this film, what's different isn't so much the tools we used, but a feeling I was deliberately trying to capture, of how I would paint something…what those color and value relationships are that tell you what you’re watching is not a photograph. I was trying to get that more immersive quality while also trying to impart a cinematic quality as well. I don't want to completely ignore the camera, how it would capture something. If I go too painterly it gets really cartoony. So I was trying to find this bridge between a painterly world and a cinema graphic photographic kind of world and merge them together. It's more of an art direction thing than it is a tools thing.

DS: You made the decision to use full volumetric clouds on the film, rather that digital matte paintings. Why was that decision made and what did it bring to the film?

SC: Pete [Sohn, the director] wanted clouds that acted in a particular way. He had this vision for super cell storm clouds that he wanted in the film. My first thought was, "Oh my gosh, how do I get those to match with matte painted clouds to where it feels like they're in the same world?" I'd always wanted to do volumetric clouds. Everybody would tell me I was crazy. But, it's like, “OK, come on, how hard could it be?” I mean, not how hard could it be, but haven't we developed enough technology…why can't we figure out how to do this?

So for me it was more a stylistic thing. I didn't want anything to bump the audience when they went from one cloud type to another. I wanted it all to feel a part of the world we were creating. I thought, why can't we have clouds that catch shadows? Why can't we have clouds that just take the surrounding light the same way as the world? Why do I have to compromise? Even though matte paintings can often be very beautiful, they're usually added at the end and it's difficult to balance the light and color on them to get them to look like they belong with the lighting on the set. I just wanted people watching the film to have a total immersive experience. That was the first thing I said to Sanjay [Bakshi, the film’s supervising technical director] at the beginning of the film is "I want volumetric clouds, help me make them happen." And he did.


Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.