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The Art of Science: Bringing Pixar's Imagined Worlds To Life With Danielle Feinberg

Guest contributor Jeremy Harrison reports on the talk given by Pixar's Director of Photography for Lighting, Danielle Feinberg, at Fermilab, in Batavia, Illinois on May 4, 2018.

Fermilab holds some very interesting talks about science and engineering. Last Friday, they had a Pixar one. Danielle Feinberg talked about her time trying to make it into Pixar and the projects she worked on; She starts out by talking about how she used her coding skills to create art at eight years old and how she learned of the company Pixar. “They seem like they have jobs!” She loudly proclaimed in the auditorium!

So began her interest in computer programming and graphics with the intent to make animation for Pixar. She found herself in a class dominated by men and being a homosexual female, she quickly felt very out of place but, she persevered and took special classes (Independent Study) that would prepare her for a job at Pixar which paid off.

Her first job was using sine waves and random noise generators to move “leaves” in the background of her first movie, Monsters Inc! Not important to the plot or anything … just one of those small details you don’t really consciously notice but on a subtle level these interactions make the world seem more real and are part of what helps the audience to become more engaged in the animated world.

Wall-E’s eyes were a big problem. How do you give a robot a soul? Glass eyes means dead inside and that’s exactly what Wall-E has … GLASS for EYES! But with the correct amount of lighting and shade, the character was able to come to life. Wall-E is one of my favorite Sci-fi animated pictures and I really do think Ms. Feinberg and her team for putting the details into Wall-E to make that picture great.

Recently, Ms. Feinberg worked on Coco and making the world come alive. They were ordered to build: “A World like no one has ever seen before!” and while she described her and her team's process to doing that, what caught my attention the most was how she and her team built the “rose petal bridge” using codes of both physics and math from a program called Maya. She, of course, spared the audience the math involved (much to my chagrin as a math person ). Much to my delight though, she does use her status to inspire the future generation of women scientists to pursue a career in computer science. They learn that maybe one day they too can work at Pixar, using math, science, and trig to help create and add to the realism of an animated 3D world.

Coco I would say is her crowning achievement as well as for everyone else who worked on it.

Next year, Toy Story 4 comes out and I’m cautiously optimistic about it; mainly because I thought Toy Story 3 had such a good ending, but I have faith in Pixar. 2020, she hinted that a movie called Treeo will make its way into theaters and after Coco, I like the rest of world, can’t wait to see what Pixar does next. Their animations are truly a delight and how they bridge the right brain and the left brain to create such wonderful worlds is a thing to be cherished.