The master behind the magic of Pixar

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Danielle Feinberg of Pixar spoke at the Dodd Center recently and expounded upon her work (Brandon Barzola/The Daily Campus)

There is a special kind of passion that often goes unnoticed among Pixar’s beloved films. Pixar’s Director of photography for lighting Danielle Feinberg came to the Dodd Center to share her experience working for Pixar as well as a behind-the-scenes look at some of the films she’s worked on. Her presentation, titled “The Art of Science: Bringing Imagined Worlds to Life,” showcased some of her favorite and most challenging work from films like “Coco” (2017), “Brave” (2012) and “WALL-E” (2008).   

Her interest in computer science began in fourth grade. After being inspired by Pixar’s short films, this interest led to her earn her bachelor’s degree in computer science from Harvard University. She immediately went on to work with Pixar on its second full feature film, “A Bug’s Life” (1998). She worked as an entry-level render wrangler and eventually went on to lead the team in a male-dominated department.   

“She started off so small and never thought that she’d get somewhere so big,” Brittany Shuster, a fourth-semester digital media and design major, said. “You could get anywhere you want if you really believe you can do it.” 

Feinberg went on to discuss how some of her first work in coding began in “Monsters, Inc.” but she soon fell in love with the use of lighting. Although lighting is the last creative step in the process of making an animated film, she adored how lighting carries so much emotion and power and breathes light into the world.  

While showcasing some concept art and behind-the-scenes material of “Brave,” Feinberg discussed how Pixar wanted to amp up the attention to detail from its previous original film, “Up” (2009), as a result of the ground-breaking visuals and success of “Avatar” (2009). The making of “Brave” pulled an extreme amount of detail from reference photos and research trips to Scotland. This helped the team recreate the specific foliage and weather to bring the dense forest to life. Feinberg went as far to say she knows “more about Scottish vegetation than anyone ever should.”  

“In ‘Brave’, Scotland has ever-changing weather and because it’s very far north, the light has a different quality to it.” Feinberg said. “So when I’m lighting it, I’m actually trying to channel that so, if you’re from Scotland and you watch that movie, it actually feels like Scotland.”  

Feinberg’s most challenging but fruitful project was “Coco.” The audience was in awe with how she broke down and explained the lighting, physics and particle effects behind the film’s marigold bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead.  

“It really is crazy how much is put into these films,” Anthony Zor a fourth-semester digital media and design major, said. “It’s insane how much she talked about and what detail goes into it. I’m blown away.” 

When tasked with creating the land of the dead, the director simply told Feinberg’s team to “create a world like no one has seen before.” Obviously, the ambiguity of this direction was of no help at first, but it did motivate the team to design something spectacular. Feinberg mentioned how the shot where Miguel first looks upon the verticality and great expanse of the land of the dead uses roughly eight and a half million lights.  

Feinberg also showed the audience just how much detail went into designing the towers in the land of the dead that normally wouldn’t be visible at first glance. One of the most spectacular things to think about was how at the base of these enormous towers were Mayan pyramids, followed by the colonial period and ending with more modern architecture towards the top, since the land of the dead is an ever-growing place.  

“When I was in Mexico on the research trips…everywhere I’m going, I’m looking at what the light looks like. All kinds of things…are a part of how we set the place in a way that the audience may not totally recognize, but is actually taken in and is part of setting up the world,” Feinberg said. 

Feinberg talked extensively about how she and her team felt strongly about being culturally accurate throughout the making of “Coco.” There were many cultural consultants and research trips that helped them make sure that they, as Americans, were respectfully and accurately depicting Mexican culture and traditions.  

“We want to hit the story and make it look beautiful and hit all the notes on every model, every character and every shot,” Feinberg said. 

After a roar of applause from a presentation that really showed how much work is put into these films, it’s clear how the making of these animated films is truly a labor of love. 


Brandon Barzola is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at brandon.barzola@uconn.edu. He tweets @brandonbarzola.

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