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Character Lighting

Pixar uses character lighting to enhance storytelling and evoke emotions. Techniques include rim lighting for drama, underlighting for scariness, and soft light for sadness. Danielle Feinberg and Erik Smitt, Pixar's Directors of Photography for Lighting, share examples from Coco, Incredibles 2, and WALL-E, demonstrating how lighting supports the story and characters.

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Video transcript

(spring bouncing) - Now let's talk about one of the most important things that we do in lighting at Pixar, lighting characters. Oftentimes, character lighting is used not just to light the character and make them look good, but to say something about them or their situation in the story. That's what this video is all about. For example, in this moment in Toy Story 3, Buzz is lit with only a rim light at the beginning of the shot, even though Jessie has a key light on her. Then, he steps into the key light at the end of the shot. This was done to make his reveal as dramatic and threatening as possible. And in this example, the monkey is underlit. The key light is coming from below him so that he looks scary and threatening. Compare this to the scene where the light is bouncing off the floor from the window, lighting the characters from below. In this case, even though the light is coming from underneath them, it is kept soft and is balanced out with the other lights in this scene. So that instead of feeling scary, the lighting feels sad. And in this example, Joy is the light source and her warm light shining back onto Sadness helps draw them together in the shot. We can see how close Joy is to Sadness and her light draws them together and underscores the intimacy between them in this moment. To better understand how this happens, I brought Danielle and Erik to tell us how they use lighting to bring characters to life here at Pixar. - I'm Danielle Feinberg and I'm a Director of Photography for Lighting. - My name is Erik Smitt and I was the Director of Photography for Lighting on the Incredibles 2. - So one of the things we can do in character lighting is to really sell, sort of, the emotion of a character or the emotion of a moment in interesting ways. And so there's this really fun moment in Coco where it's really the, the sort of, crux of the whole story shifts and it's up until this point we've thought that Ernesto de la Cruz is this very famous Mexican musician, and he's Miguel's hero, and this wonderful guy. And they walk in together and Miguel's having this evening with de la Cruz, his hero, and there's a pool nearby. And so he's getting this nice soft, sort of, green light along with some candle light, and the general light in the room is sort of purple. And it's all sort of softly lit and they look appealing. And then as the scene goes on we reveal that de la Cruz is actually this totally evil guy. And so by the end of the scene de la Cruz has walked over near the pool and so 'stead of this soft, sorta, green light, he now has this underlit harsh green light and it's sort of like if you're telling a ghost story and you underlight yourself with the light. And so that was the way we used the lighting to, sort of, signify the shift. And we had this guy who was this great guy and now he's actually like completely evil and is sending Miguel off to his death. And so we get him all underlit by that green light. (evil laughing) - And there's this wonderful moment in the scene of Helen checks in. Where she calls him to check in and it's just after this raccoon fight had happened and so he's a little perplexed. He realizes Jack-Jack has these superpowers and Bob, things are going a little rocky for him, not only is he not in the spotlight, not being the superhero that he wants to be. He's realizing it's actually harder to be, you know, the stay at home dad, the parent, the single parent on his own than he thought it would be. And so we light him in a way where he's got a little bit deeper shadow in his eye. He's a little bit standoffish with her on the phone. He's not feeling quite engaged. And so, she reveals to him that she had the best day of her life. And she had this moment in the spotlight and saved this train. And so he turns on the TV and so we continue that, the sense of that, in the cinematography with the light on his face creating even deeper shadow in his eye. Even harsher angles on his face. And it's this world that he wishes he was in and he's not reflected on his face, just showing, like, how miserable he is. And so we're trying to create that tension in the scene so that the audience can feel it along the way. - It turns out that WALL-E was incredibly difficult to light. Because if you think about it, WALL-E is, he's rusty, and he's metal, and he looks exactly like a lot of the things in the garbage dump behind him and so finding ways to pull WALL-E out from that background was actually incredibly challenging. And one of the ways we do that is with those rim lights that you've heard about. And so, getting this edge of lighting to kind of separate from the background is really critical, but we couldn't get any rim lights on WALL-E because he was this box with tight corners and it wouldn't catch any light. And so we had to figure out different ways, like banging up the corners to catch a little light, but it gave us this distinct shape of WALL-E and so you could kinda pull him out from the trash. - So a scene in the Incredibles where the characters move from one strong lighting set up to another, one that comes to mind immediately is at the beginning of the movie when they're trying to stop the Tunneler from crashing into City Hall. There's this whole fight sequence that takes place in this kind of stormy, steel gray light with, like, sunbeams that sear through the clouds and captures certain areas of contrast. And so, it's like, it feels very moody. It's very pushed. It's almost a little bit mysterious and we use that to kinda caricature their action sequence as they chase this machine down the street. At some point, they realize they need to get inside and stop the thing from the inside out. And so we wanted a big change of feeling when we go inside of there. Maybe make it slightly more theatrical, slightly more stylized, and so as Helen swings across from one of these lamp-posts across the sky, and then down into the Tunneler machine, there's an abrupt change and the light is extremely red from where the molten core of this engine is and bright yellow from the back, and emerald green from the cooling tanks. And we really used that as a way to distinguish between these two spaces, and to have the audience feel very, something very different, both when we transition inside and then when we cut back and forth from Helen fighting the machine on the inside to Bob and the kids still trying to stop the machine on the outside. - As you can see, we put a lot of thought into how we light the characters in order to help support the story. In the next exercise, you are going to return to your lighting set up and swap out your orange with a toy character of your choosing and try out some of these ideas.