A Journey to the Center of the Mind

Pixar seminar, photo by Aleksander Salski

2014 was an interesting year, and not just because of Shia LaBeouf’s paper-bag-over-his-head antics in Berlin. For the first time in almost a decade, summer went by without a new Pixar film. With The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory significantly pushed back, it seemed like Pixar’s string of back-to-back successes was about to hit a speed bump. And then, just like Britney Spears, they did it again. Oops.

Now that’s a little odd. Luckily, Patrick Lin seems to think so too: “Why are you standing on a ream of paper?” – he asks in the middle of Pixar: Behind The Virtual Camera presentation. “Because I’m not tall enough?” – comes the swift answer from Camera and Staging Lead Adam Habib. “This was for the shot when Riley steps off a curb – you wanted it to look like the camera operator was stepping off the curb as well. So we went and found a ream of paper from the copy machine. Maybe we shouldn’t be showing this, it looks really goofy. All these things you normally see on a low-budget student film, like walking around with a tripod – we did it all. You still need tape to make a CGI movie.” The things you learn every day.

Kim White, Adam Habib and Patrick Lin, photo by Aleksander Salski
Kim White, Adam Habib and Patrick Lin, photo by Aleksander Salski

Pixar is no stranger to last-minute changes. Among the films that underwent significant transformation mere months before their scheduled release date were Toy Story and Ratatouille. And that turned out quite all right, ne c’est pas? As far as company policies go, theirs is quite simple: if something is not working – get rid of it. And then start over.
From a modest computer division at Lucasfilm to a billion-dollar animation studio – the rise of Pixar involved some interesting twists and turns and was a long time in the making. Its stature can’t be denied; after winning numerous Oscars and a stellar box-office run, it looks like they can finally relax a little – except they won’t.

Rats with a taste for gourmet cuisine, robots obsessing over Hello Dolly! – it’s hard to predict what Pixar will come up with next, although in all probability it will involve Randy Newman. Their newest creation is no exception to the rule; Inside Out, directed and co-written by Pete Docter, is set in the mind of Riley, a girl guided by 5 emotions: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear and Disgust. “When I first heard of it I thought: This is a cross between Alice in Wonderland and the Seven Dwarfs” – admitted Director of Photography Patrick Lin before the screening of the film (yes, we have been following them for a while now). “The movie’s idea comes from Pete’s observation of his own daughter Ellie. When she was 11 years old, her moods started to turn and when Pete was talking to one of her teachers, he heard: Your daughter is very quiet. That prompted him to think: What is going on? Whose kid are they talking about? What’s going on in her head? That was the seed that started the movie. He was trying to write a story about how hard it is to grow up.

"Inside Out" still, Copyright by Pixar
“Inside Out” still, Copyright by Pixar

During the highly informative presentation, which made us feel very stupid, the Pixar team including Patrick Lin, Adam Habib and Kim White, Director of Photography for lighting, shared the challenges they faced every day while working on the film and explained in great detail how cinematography, which at Pixar is a collaborative effort of about 50 artists, is practiced in animation. “Lights, camera, action – I’m sure you’ve heard this before” – stressed Lin. “This is what you say in live action, but in computer animation it’s all mixed up. It’s actually camera, action and light. In another words, it’s layout, animation and then lightning.

Let’s not forget about the extensive research – the team behind Finding Nemo learnt to scuba dive and people working on Brave went trekking in Scotland. Which is all very nice, but how do you research a film that takes place inside of somebody’s head and in San Francisco? “Early on there was a lot of concern that the audience was going to get confused because we were cutting really quickly between those two worlds. But as we started to make the first images, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a problem” – says Kim White. “We wanted the inside world to use a more mechanical camera movement and for the outside world we wanted something more organic. Our job really is to use camera to support the character’s emotions and a story” – added Lin.

"Inside Out" still, Copyright by Pixar
“Inside Out” still, Copyright by Pixar

We look at a lot of stuff for inspiration; movies, paintings, posters, YouTube” – continued White. Or at the works of light installation artist James Turrell, which provided them with some new ideas. “The way he uses color and light to create a sense of space was really interesting to see. When lighting a CGI movie, our goal is the same like with every movie – to support a story with light. It helps to communicate a lot of things, like a time of day, mood, atmosphere; it can give us a sense of space and say something about the characters. Oh, and there was one light that was just for the forks. They just looked kind of dark.” Now we wouldn’t want that, would we? Apparently at Pixar even forks are taken care of. Can we please move in NOW?

Marta Bałaga

"Inside Out" still, Copyright by Pixar
“Inside Out” still, Copyright by Pixar

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