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D23 Expo 2017: Creating the Worlds in Pixar’s Universe

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We all know and love Pixar’s amazing animated films and one key to that attachment is the world building that envelopes you into the story and characters. Today at the ‘Creating the World in Pixar’s Universe’ panel we got to learn a ton about how those worlds are created and how it works into the general storytelling. The panel members were Sharon Calahan (director of photography, lighting), Ralph Eggleston (production designer), Harley Jessup (production designer), Katharine Sarafian (producer), and Kim White (director of photography, lighting).

Jessup started the panel with a very interesting quote. He said “Realism is not the goal. Our goal is believability”. Everything has to be built around the characters and story to make it all feel believable for the movie to work. This requires many different strategies. For instance, in Inside Out they created a contrast between the human and mind worlds by having the human world painted with a low saturation (incidentally they all seemed to agree Inside Out was the most difficult film to design for).

It was neat to hear about some of the research they do to create the right tone and artwork. On Good Dinosaur they researched weather in order to make the environment a character in the film. In Ratatouille they looked at food photography and the lighting of the whole film was driven by the way they wanted the food to look.

If you are going to be a Pixar animator you must learn quickly to not be ‘too precious with your ideas’ because for every 500 you might keep 1. We got to see early concept art of Sulley from Monsters Inc and how he at one point had tentacles and then moved on after 4 or 5 steps to what we now know. Wall-e had a king in early drafts. All of these concepts have to be researched and created as the film is being continually reinvented and perfected by the Brain Trust.

The most important aspect of the world building is capturing the grand vision of the project. “The directors deal with details. We get the big ideas” With such sweeping visuals it makes the films of Pixar so special and memorable. “We aren’t just here to illustrate a story. We are here to be part of a story.” They shared a lot of cool stories about the way the stories ebb and flow through the design process. Sometimes this could be quite urgent like when they decided to add Young Merida at the last minute in Brave or when they removed an explosion scene from Monsters Inc right after 9/11 occurred.

I was also fascinated to hear about changes they made in Ratatouille. They originally had all the rats on 2 feet but when they showed it to Brad Bird he told them to put it back to 4 feet. “We were trying to downplay the repulsiveness of the rats but he said that’s what makes it special”. So back to work they went and they even did a research trip to Paris where they studied everything from the perspective of a rat, very low to the ground- even taking photos of the garbage cans!

In Cars 3 they were inspired by old technicolor films. They broke down the Doc Hudson flashback and everything was desaturated and from the shadows to the edges of the screen it speaksto nostalgia and memories.

Listening to these great artists was a reminder of why Pixar is so great. Every detail is paid attention too and debated over until they have completed their films. Now we have to look forward to Coco and all the attention to detail which went into that film. I’m excited!

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About Rachel Wagner

Rachel has loved animation since she was a little girl singing songs from The Little Mermaid at the top of her lungs. She currently works in social media marketing and loves to blog and vlog about Disney, Pixar and all kinds of movies in her free time. Her favorite movie is Up and she considers herself quite the Cinderella aficionado seeing every version she can get her hands on. She also loves animated TV shows like Simpsons, Gravity Falls, Star Wars Rebels and more. Follow her on twitter @smilingldsgirl
  • Yellow

    It’s crazy how much thought and effort goes into designing these movies. Props to you, Pixar.