Inside out technology problems

Pixar is a technology company. With Inside Out, its newest feature due later this year, Pixar had its own unique set of technical challenges to overcome. A bigger vision led to scaling problems, the duality of the film’s narrative meant creating not one, but two worlds and visual languages — not to mention a main character made entirely of light.

One of the major technical hurdles to overcome was how to shoot the movie in a way that communicates the tumultuous, expressive world of emotions — yet can also transmit the subtleties and nuance of our ‘outside’ human world.

Typically, when you want to direct a camera in a virtual world for an animated film, you do it point-by-point. If the desired effect is a mechanical, tracking, dolly or even handheld shot, each of those is programmed in by a camera operator to mimic the real-world equivalent.

In addition, as the story progresses, the camera techniques move from a swooping, 30’s-style mechanical camera into a much more modern hand operated camera style.

Lin had previously used the technique while making The Blue Umbrella, a short that ran before Pixar’s Monsters University. The version they used then was significantly improved for use on Inside Out.

“On Blue Umbrella it was really in its infancy. The gearbox that we have, that is actually built by one of our lead layout artists Adam [Habib]. He also built a focus ring, too, that can actually do live focusing, so that we can get that perfect focus more naturally. Everything we do has to be deliberate, and nothing is accidental.”

One of the main characters in the movie is Joy, as voiced by Amy Poehler and featured prominently in the trailers and other marketing. As you can see here, Joy glows. Not only does she glow, but she’s actually a full on light source.

Having a light bulb walking around in your scenes presented some difficulties to Pixar’s lighting staff.

Character lighting lead Angelique Reisch says that Joy’s glowing nature was one of the tougher technical challenges to overcome.


Finding dory technology

Each new Pixar film employs newer and better technology, but Finding Dory introduces an unprecedented amount of new software to their production pipeline. The company’s chief technology officer Steve May, who worked on Finding Nemo as the supervisor of the shark sequence, says that the process of how they make films has changed a lot since then, but “mainly computers are way faster and algorithms are way better.” Finding Dory introduces three completely new technologies and major improvements in one of their older pieces of software.

While their animation software RenderMan has been around since the late 1980s (used in all of their films as well as many films that have won Oscars in the past 15 years), an entirely new version of the software was employed on Dory. There are basically two kinds of light: direct light and indirect light (which bounces off something else). In Finding Nemo, Pixar could only afford direct light and the lighting artists would create invisible light sources around the scene to mimic what indirect light might look like. That process is intensive as it’s all created and designed by hand.

Finding Dory is the first Pixar film to use the RenderMan RIS architecture software, which is able to create both the direct and indirect light. This allows the lighting team to spend less time trying to mimic reality and more time making creative decisions. Finding Dory has a lot of water, and the software is also able to deal with reflected and refracted light in water, which impacts the color of the water. With something more complicated like a splash, the software is able to reflect and refract light on every single drop of water. Each shot in Finding Dory has billions of individual light rays per frame, with probably ten reflections and refractions in each ray.

On Finding Nemo, creating the look of water meant a lot of work by hand. Now all of that can be created automatically in the software. The software is also able to create foam, aeration inside the water, which adds another 100 reflections and refractions — all of which was not possible before this film. Fish tanks are very complicated, and in Finding Nemo Pixar had three or four people work for six months to add in the reflections on the tank and water surface. This was done by hand for every shot of the tank that you see in that film. In Finding Dory, it’s all accomplished automatically.

One of the biggest challenges with lighting a computer-created scene is that it takes a lot of time to get feedback to see what a render will actually look like. Sometimes this takes minutes, but often times it takes hours for a single frame render. For Finding Dory, Pixar employed a Katana, a DCC app which creates more reactive renders and which works with RenderMan through a plugin. As they move a light source in a scene, the artist see a noisy-looking live render of the results which gradually improves in resolution.

Pixar’s proprietary animation system Presto is not new: they’ve been using since Brave. But they’ve added new abilities to the software for this film. Sully in Monsters Inc. originally had tentacles, but Pixar was forced to get rid of them because they were too hard to animate. They have added a new ability to allow artists to simply draw tentacles rather than program tons of different points along each tentacle. The result is almost like bringing computer animation back to the hand-drawn days.

On Finding Nemo, they built blueprints to help them animate how each fish swims. On Finding Dory, they have created an animation recipe to help make the animation of the swimming more automatic, with controls to allow animators to change and alter how Dory swims. While it doesn’t create the swim animation automatically, it helps take a lot of the tedious work out of it so animators can concentrate on the creative side of it.


Pixar’s subsequent films act like a timeline of technological developments in computer graphics. Building on the work of other researchers, 2001’s Monsters, Inc. introduced the on-screen representation of fur. Two years later, Finding Nemo pioneered new techniques in digital lighting, which were used to create realistic-looking water. The Incredibles and Ratatouille brought with them believable human characters, and advances in the simulation of crowds and fluids.

Monsters Inc Technology Struggles

When Tom Porter joined the Monsters, Inc. team he began by making a list of the technology they had to develop to get the film completed. One of the big problems was making hair move realistically. Sulley, a star of the film, is an 8 foot tall horned monster with a 700 pound body covered in blue-green hair. Having animators animate his hair by hand would have been an impossible task. Developing hair simulation software that can control hair movement was the answer.

They also developed simulation technology to move clothing independently of body motion. The big problem for Porter’s staff the first year of pre-production was to develop these programs. “We spent a lot of time up front making sure we could get the simulation working. In the end it worked fine.”

Another problem was creating the visual feel of atmosphere in large spaces. Monsters, Inc. was going to take place in an enormous factory and in vast outdoor spaces. They knew they had to suggest wind blowing, smoke, snow and other atmospheric effects. Porter said that historically computer graphics has presented a rather clean or crystal clear view of the world.

If you have seen the ads for the film on TV you may have noticed a line of monsters marching toward the camera. In that factory sequence they become easier to see and their colors become richer and brighter as they move toward the camera. This naturalistic effect suggests some of the subtle attention to detail Pixar’s team has achieved.

Lighting on this film was also a lot more sophisticated then it was in Toy Story. Lighting a hard plastic surface is a lot simpler than lighting fur and clothing. Therefore, they got involved with the principles of back lighting, rim lighting and other problems that they hadn’t experienced in their previous films.

Lighting and atmosphere in animated films were elevated to new levels by the creators of Monsters, Inc.Lighting and atmosphere in animated films were elevated to new levels by the creators of Monsters, Inc.

A typical day for Porter found him going over shader reviews, lighting reviews, keeping track of the big issues and running render checks to examine individual frames for problems that can develop. He oversaw approximately 100 people in the departments of lighting, shading, modeling and shots. The shots department was established for this project to implement the hair and clothing simulation.

Pixar also has a new laser recording system that was used to transfer digital images to 35mm film. It offers a wider range of colors. Despite the use of this state of the art system to create the finest 35mm prints possible, Porter prefers seeing the film digitally. It will be shown this way in some larger markets. He says, “Digital projection looks terrific! It’s rock solid. It’s so much better than watching film going through a projector. Film has a slight jumpiness to it and grain; it looks a little different. Digital looks exactly as it does on the monitors here when we are doing the lighting reviews, the effects reviews and everything else. That is what the director wants to see.”