In 2014, Sharon Calahan, ASC was inducted into the American Society of Cinematographers, which is an invite only organization of the most elite cinematographers in the world. (( The Hollywood Reporter “Pixar’s Sharon Calahan on Animation, Live Action Convergence” )) She has worked at Pixar as a lighting director of photography for over 20 years and she is the first ASC member whose entire body of work is computer generated. The art and practice of cinematography is constantly evolving and now officially includes CG cinematography thanks to Sharon’s groundbreaking work on films like Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life”, “Finding Nemo”, and “Ratatouille.”
Cinematography Database: Sharon, can you tell us a little about your background and what you do in the industry?
Sharon Calahan: Many years ago now, I studied illustration, graphic design and photography in art school. Initially, I embarked on a career as an art director in broadcast television, then gradually transitioned into computer graphics when the industry was in its infancy; at first working on commercials and other small projects. I joined Pixar 20 years ago as they were crewing up to produce the first computer generated feature film, “Toy Story.” My focus has always been in lighting and image creation. My role at Pixar is as a lighting director of photography.
CDB: Congratulations on becoming a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). That is every real world DP’s dream and now perhaps every CG DP’s dream too! Can you talk about that experience?
SC: Thank you. It was a 20-year-long dream for me as well. I didn’t think that it would really happen, but I set it as a goal to challenge myself to learn and to strive for excellence. It still feels a bit surreal, but it also feels incredibly good and an honor to be part of that amazing organization.
CDB: When did Pixar start using the term “Director of Photography?” Did they mean for the role to mirror a real world director of photography? Do the directors at Pixar typically have experience working with real world DP’s?
SC: Pixar started using the term on “A Bug’s Life,” and yes, the role was intended to mirror the live-action world because by the end of “Toy Story” we realized that there were much stronger similarities in our workflows and creative processes to live-action than with traditional cell animation. Several of the directors here do have live-action experience, particularly Brad Bird and Lee Unkrich.
CDB: There are a lot of new labels like virtual cinematographer, director of imaging, CG DP, etc. and I understand the “want” to separate DP’s that work in the real world and ones that work in a computer. How do you feel about these labels? Will we all eventually just be cinematographers/director of photography?
SC: It is an understandably complex question and difficult to answer, especially succinctly. Even at Pixar, where everything is CG, there are differences on each show as to what the role encompasses. In live-action, a film can still be that; a picture captured on film and without VFX, although these movies are increasingly rare.
Many films now are a hybrid of film (while it lasts) or digitally captured plates with integrated VFX elements or “real” shots that intercut with “all CG” shots. The live-action DP sets the visual tone of the film with the live-action capture even if they are not involved with supervising the VFX work. But look at the breathtaking brilliance that can happen when they are involved, for example in a film like “Gravity”! The long production process on a film like that can seem like an eternity to a live-action DP, but the advancements in CG tools will soon start to expedite the process.
It is also evident to see the hand of the great Roger Deakins on “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” who acted as a consultant on that project. There was a great article about the collaboration in the ICG magazine: http://www.icgmagazine.com/web/?p=3803. Filmmaking in any medium is an intensely collaborative process with many people contributing talents and skills. The digital age has introduced new elements into the mix; but at the end of the day, the director and producer hire a DP to create and realize an artistic vision for the composition, lighting and look of the movie as a whole. Ideally to create the most consistent vision for the look of the film, the DP is involved from pre-production all the way through the DI.
This is what happens at Pixar, which is why we use the terms DP or cinematographer. Granted, this was a long preamble to answering your question. I think that the discussion about separate labels for live-action vs CG will probably be moot at some point because in the future it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish the differences. It is gratifying to see the interest that live-action cinematographers such as Deakins are developing for the animation art form. There is much that we can all learn from each other.
CDB: On a traditional film shoot, the DP and the gaffer are responsible for the lighting. How does the hierarchy work on a CG movie like Finding Nemo? Who are your lighting crew?
SC: Our lighting crew consists of several leads: a small team comprising complementary skills that help the DP guide the crew, develop the tools, and to keep the work flowing smoothly. We have what we call “master lighters” that do the pre-lighting for the scene. They also help oversee the “shot lighters” who light the individual shots to camera. We also have a technical support crew that we call “lightspeed” and production management support. The lighting artist crew size varies per show, I’ve had as few as 27 artists and as many as 65.
CDB: In CG/animation, the camera / composition / framing is traditionally handled by the layout department, which is separate from the lighting department. As a lighting DP, do you collaborate with the layout artists and the director?
SC: Yes, I’m very much involved. And we do try to block out the lighting in layout so that we can see major components that affect composition such as shadows and atmosphere. At Pixar the lighting artists handle the final compositing.
CDB: Concept art, storyboarding, and previs have been around in CG animation for many years. How does the concept art, boards, and previs affect your lighting work?
SC: Everything starts with the storyboards, which is like our version of a live script with editing, music and sound. Our finished film is a refinement of the boards. But that isn’t to say that work in other parts of the process don’t also influence the boards. I’m currently in pre-production on a project; parts of the process are already in production but lighting is still a couple of months out. The art department is designing sets and characters, and creating concept paintings while the technical departments are starting to create assets and refining workflows. The previs process is also in the mix, mostly as a location scouting tool. I’ve currently painted over 150 lighting concept paintings and will probably paint at least that many more before I’m done. I’m often inspired by what is in the boards, or what the art department is designing, but I also have opportunities to create images or propose ideas that find their way back into the storyboards or into the set design. We use whatever means we need to discover the best answers, to develop a common vocabulary, and to share a common vision.
CDB: I read that originally, Pixar only used direct lighting and simulated the “bounce” or global illuminated lighting effects. What rendering engine do you use and do you use GI these days?
SC: Yes, that is true, the use of GI lighting tools is fairly recent for us. Both approaches (direct lighting and GI) each have their own strengths and drawbacks, but one of the biggest drawbacks originally with GI was the render expense. As the tools have become faster and computers less expensive, the decision to transition became much easier. We use RenderMan, which is a non-proprietary Pixar renderer.
CDB: On a real world set we can see the effect of every light in real time and react instantly. Do you find the delay in setting a CG light to seeing the final image a detriment to your workflow? I’ve heard some artists actually embrace the render time as a time to really think about what each light is doing.
SC: I think it depends very much on the mental state at any given time of any given lighting artist. That all sounds right. However, we are on the cusp of revolutionary change where real-time lighting/rendering will become a reality. All of our tools are evolving to become much closer to live-action in function and workflow. Without sounding too much like a advertisement for Pixar and RenderMan, this link has more info: http://renderman.pixar.com/view/latest-tech.
CDB: I recently read “Storytelling Through Lighting” which I would like to repost on CDB — who is this course for and what prompted you to write it?
SC: In 1996, I gave a talk as part of an all-day 4-speaker SIGGRAPH session called “Pixel Cinematography,” which was probably the first course or lecture given on what we now often call virtual cinematography. Steven Poster ASC, John Kahrs (then at Blue Sky in New York, now an Academy Award-winning short film director), and Euan MacDonald (a digital effects supervisor at ILM) were the other speakers. What you are referring to are my course notes from that presentation. This was the first SIGGRAPH after the release of Toy Story, and this was a mostly technical audience interested in learning more about filmmaking.
My presentation grew out of somebody asking me to describe what I think about when I look at an image and decide what to change to make it look better or function in the story. Much of the content is what I learned in the first color and design class I took in art school, so it wasn’t new material, but perhaps it was for many in that audience who didn’t have the benefit of going to art school or film school. My goal was to demonstrate that the visual concepts of creating a compelling image are the same in any medium, and how lighting isn’t simply window-dressing, but has a profound impact on how the audience feels about what they are seeing and how and when they see it. I had deliberately used traditional fine art paintings as image reference, but I have also often given the same talk using cinematography reference. These course notes were later updated and published in the book “Advanced RenderMan.”
Looking back, the assemblage of these speakers into one course was very prescient of the current mashup that begs the question, “what is a cinematographer?”
CDB: For a young aspiring cinematographer should he/she take a traditional film route or learn CG lighting? Using framing and lighting to tell a story is the ultimate goal but there is a lot of technical knowledge to be learned to master both real world lighting and CG lighting.
SC: That is a great question and one that I am often asked. I often wish I had studied filmmaking in school. There is so much to learn in the craft of telling a story with moving images, and a solid foundation there is always a good idea. When a person is creating a drawing, they are not thinking about the pencil (at least not very much). It is creatively liberating to be comfortable enough with the tools so that they are not a hinderance to creating, but the tools alone will not generate beautiful images. When admiring a beautiful drawing, one doesn’t admire the pencil, but the artist. It is essential to also develop the visual skills along with the technical and production savvy to provide the vision to guide a crew to a shared goal. Ideally the cinematography courses of today and tomorrow focus on all of it.