"Cinematography for Animation” Interview with Sharon Calahan, ASC

Director of Photography – The Good Dinosaur, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Finding Nemo

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In the beginning of 2014, the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) accepted as an active member, the first cinematographer working exclusively in the animation industry, Sharon Calahan. Now she will be credited as Director of Photography, Sharon Calahan, ASC. Her credits include such noticeable animation films as The Good Dinosaur, Cars 2, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 1 and 2, A Bug's Life and many others.

We look on the fact of her acceptance into the ASC, as a “game changing” historical event that is important for all cinematographers for many reasons, but to underline the two most important ones – the continuous change in the nature of the cinematographer’s work, and the leading role of the ASC in the comprehension and facilitations of those changes.

GCI Co-Founder Yuri Neyman, ASC: How has the creative process in animation, specifically in your field of expertise, changed over the course of your career between now, The Good Dinosaur, and the times of Ratatouille and Finding Nemo?

Sharon Calahan, ASC: Our tools are constantly evolving and much changes from film-to-film. Overall the trend has been toward a more physically-based illumination model, which means that there are some features that behave more like the real world. Any advancement also means some features may be compromised for the sake of progress. For example, some realistic effects are easier and faster to attain in the physically-based world, but other more painterly effects or cheats from reality might now be more difficult. The other trend is that it becomes easier over time to add more complexity as rendering engines become faster and memory limits increase. One example is the staggering amount of vegetation we were able to support in The Good Dinosaur (TGD). This was made possible by being able to generate a large quantity of procedurally generated primitives that are smart about how they reduce in detail over distance. This allowed us to avoid the necessity of relying on matte painted backgrounds, which made it possible to totally free the camera from any constraints. Our ability to create and render volumetric effects such as clouds really took a big leap on TGD. We also now do more exploration in the pre-vis process. On TGD we made use of USGS data as rough terrain geometry to explore possible settings with a camera, like doing location scouting with a helicopter and drone. We then customize the landscape to suit our needs and visual style. TGD also was much more FX heavy than Ratatouille, we spent a great deal of time and care lighting the river effects, and other elements such as rain, lightning and dust, to seamlessly blend into the overall look of the film.

Y: What training/education did you receive to become a cinematographer in eduction?

S: I went to art school to study illustration, design and photography, with the goal of being an art director in advertising. Even the best laid plans have unexpected twists. My career began as an art director in broadcast television, which opened my eyes and mind to eventually pursue filmmaking. The combination of these influences led me to where I am today in 3D feature animation at Pixar.


Y: How do you see the similarities and difference between DP in live action and in animation?

S: Early in my filmmaking career, since I did not study filmmaking, I felt like I had so much to learn. I spent a lot of time watching films with the sound off and asking myself questions about why things worked visually or how they could look better, or why an image made me feel a certain way. I looked for patterns, and to understand why a cinematographer made certain choices. I looked for juxtapositions and contrasts that created strong emotions or created an interesting focal point. I looked for how various cinematographers used light compositionally and also for modeling form and to create depth. I paid a lot of attention to continuity and what mattered and what didn’t. I wanted to understand how to support the story and to create memorable evocative images. In other words, creatively I feel that the thought processes and goals are the same. The tools, processes and vocabulary share some similarities (more and more over time), but at the same time can often be so completely different. Someday this question will not need to be asked because the differences will be subtle.

Y: How do you feel about your acceptance in ASC?

S: Well I think that it’s a sign that times are changing and what it means to be a cinematographer is evolving and expanding into new areas. It’s becoming increasingly more collaborative image making environment in all aspects, and involves more people, involves more communication and is coming to a consensus of what the final image is going to look like. A lot of people bringing their vision to it and all are working together to create a common vision of what the audience is going to see.


Y: Can you elaborate more about these two trends: expanding cinematography and image making?

S: I went to art school many years ago and my background is more in illustration. I learned there the basic concepts of composition, color and lighting, how to model form, and how to balance an image, how to light an object or illustrate it so that it’s pleasing. But to me no matter whether I’m shooting a photograph or painting an image or creating something on the computer, to me it’s all a form of image making and it is expanding.

It’s what do I want the audience to see, how do I want them to feel about it, where do I want them to look.

In terms of thinking about it how you want the audience to react to the image is very much the same no matter what medium you’re working in - whether it’s shot with a physical camera with real actor, or traditional animation or stop motion


Y: How has your artistic background helped you in cinematography work? How has it influenced your work on The Good Dinosaur?

S: My hobby and passion is plain air landscape painting. For me it is primarily an exercise for studying the effects of light and color in the natural world. This heavily influences how I see the world and express myself artistically in filmmaking. The Good Dinosaur was a special treat for me to work on because it is set in the northwest mountain region of the US, where I have spent a lot of my time painting, and the film is essentially one landscape painting after another. I was in heaven.

Y: Can you say a few words about what is the role of light means for you?

S: …This is my favorite question. It’s because, for one, I’m not talking about me I’m talking about what I love which is of course light. And for me the role of light primarily is to direct the eye to the action, to make things readable, and if you’re doing it right hopefully it’s in a way, you know, that is setting the right kind of mood and tone for the moment, but also it is really beautiful

Y: Where the whole industry is going? What cinematography will mean in the future?

S: With digital becoming a major component of all aspects of image making, and its only going to continue to change and will becoming more and more a “mash-up” of various disciplines coming together under the final image.

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Y: How would you describe these changes in one, two words, or three words?

S: Well explosive change… it’s the first. That’s a good question- how would you describe it in three words. We’re telling stories now that can only be imagined and told with this extra technology, because you have the visual tools to tell it and to immerse the audience in this fantasy world that doesn’t really exist, like the movie Gravity. To shoot that all as a real thing it would be impossible.

Y: Funny to say, but some people I’ve heard, thinking it was shot in real space.

S: Yes exactly! Because it was so well done. You can make a convincing believable world with all this new technology and make it feel like it was shot traditionally.

Y: What it will be if the films are not from fantasyland?

S: Well digital makes the impossible possible, but it’s just another toolkit for how we create images. If people know all of their tools really well including all the digital/CGI component its like then it is simply what’s the smartest / cheapest /fastest/best looking way to get to the end result. It opens up even more the possibility of being able to use it all as an integrated unit. But there will always be a place for a traditionally shot film that doesn’t have any computer animation component to it. There are a lot of great films that just don’t need that.

Y: Not so many people understand or know, what Director of Photography is doing in animation. What are your responsibilities?

S: Well I’m responsible for the final image that the audience sees on the film and everything that goes into it. I’m primarily involved with the designing and directing the lighting and the final compositing and also the composition of the image. I know how to direct the eye to what the director wants to see and to the action he wants to read, making sure that the characters are appealing and I serve as the director proxy when the director is unavailable. I’m responsible for how the surfaces react to light, how the effects react to light, how everything integrates into the final image and, I take that all the way through the final image grading and QC for all the various output formats like, you know, D-cinema home theatre, you know, used to be film, not so much film anymore.


Y: How many people are in your department? Do you have any other DP who is working with you?

S: We split the traditional director of photography role into two pieces. There’s the lighting cinematographer and then also the layout cinematographer whose responsible for roughing out the staging to the camera as far as the main actors and action, and how the shots are built, which goes to editorial where they cut it into a film and that’s kind of our rough template to start making a movie with it goes to animation, they animate it and then it kind of just keeps proceeding down the pipeline.

Y: How many people are in your lighting department? Do you have “lighters” /”digital gaffers”?

S: I think every studio calls them different things, but we call them “lighters” or “lighting TDs” or “Lighting Technical Artist”. It varies per show how big my crew is, but typically it varies between like 45-60 people depending upon what the schedule is like, how big the show is.

Y: Are you the part of the preproduction process?

S: Yes! My job starts with script. Often director will have visual notes written on the script, like it’s day, night, morning, raining, foggy. Sometimes there’s things that come from the script, a lot of the times there isn’t. Usually we start by doing a lot of research based on the script and locations. We’ll do research trips to different places if it makes sense for the story. Like for “Ratatouille” we went to Paris and did quite a bit of research in restaurant kitchens and in the sewers, and anything that might pertain to the movie. Also we took a lot of photo references, and we also look for a lot of reference online. We also look at painting references, or anything artistic that might inspire us or inform kind of what the final image might look like. As the script evolves we start narrowing down our choices.

Y: What are yours next steps during the preproduction?

S: As a part of the creative team I am taking part in discussion what the mood and the tone of the each scene should be in a order to support the story emotionally. Then we start doing concept art to try to illustrate some of these things. Sometimes we do concept art on things that aren’t even in the story yet because they can be inspirational as it’s evolving, like “wouldn’t it be cool if we had a snow sequence?”

And then as things start getting a little bit more refined we start building previs sets that are really rough, really crude geometry, so that we can get something into the computer, get a camera in there, and just work out size and scale relationships and figure out what problems we might have.

As a next step we start doing tests, the “whole look “ development tests, and working out of what that look, what overall visual “goals” might be. Usually I’ll try to devise some sort of style guide of concepts that I’d like to see in the movie, how in general I might want the actors or characters to be lit, what kind of style I’m going for in the background as a tone for the whole of the movie. And as we start getting even further along and as we start getting close to production I start doing real lighting studies that are Photoshop paintings of what this scene really should look like.

So it’s kind of a rough description of the process that takes place over about a year and a half, and it’s constantly, you know, I’m pitching ideas or the director will come out to me and say, “I want this”, and it’s a continuous dialogue between us…


Y: What software are you using for your work? Are you using any special software?

S: Pixar has their own proprietary software except for our compositing system, which is “Nuke” (Autodesk), but we have our own home-grown lighting system that we’ve been using for many years.

Y: Which its, could it be some variation of Maya or other any other software? Or is it totally and completely different?

S: It’s totally, completely different. We can customize things as we like and we have access to the guts of the lighting, shading, illumination model, and we can tune that illumination model. Like if you’re just going to be in Maya you have access to the user interface, but you have limited access to really being able to get in and fundamentally change things “under the hood”. So we’re constantly changing things “under the hood.”

Y: When you are lighting in what categories are you thinking? Or designing? For example, live cinematographer would say, “Ok, here I would love to have HMI, here I would have 2k, here I would like to have tungsten light with 216, and here I would like to have inky, or here I would like to have sky lift.” What are you saying to your “lighters”?

S: With us it’s like of more based on function rather than the light type. For instance I might say, “I want a key light on the character coming from this angle and I want it to be soft, and I want it to be at this brightness level and I want it to be this color”. We have infinite variety of how bright and what color light could be. In a lot of the times we kind of rough things out, sometimes we even rough things out just with white lights, and then we gel the lights after we balance them relative to each other. So a lot of it is relationships between lights, contrast ratios and softness description. And I spend a lot of time just talking about what I want: to model the form of the face from here, to shadow to be like this, or I don’t want it to be too soft or too hard or too shiny. It’s more like talking about what we want the final image to look like. 

Y: In one of your film, “Ratatouille” there is a very distinctive lighting style. What was your inspiration? How do you come to this look?

S: I wanted to use light as a part of the compositional elements of a scene whenever I could. There where movies that I looked at that were very inspirational to me .The one film in particular was “Bon Voyage” which is a French film that was out during that time shot by Thierry Arbogast that had a big influence on me. Also a lot of Vittorio Storaro films - “Conformist” in particular. And there were a number of other films, other cinematographers that influenced me, but those are probably two of the films that influenced me the most on “Ratatouille”. And also, there’s a 3rd one as well “Memoirs of a Geisha” (DP: Dion Beebe) was anther one that was a big influence on me at that time.

I also wanted to be inspired by food photography and how food is typically lit because we wanted the food to look luscious but I didn’t want to light the food separate from everything else. I wanted everything to feel of the same world so I was looking at what are the things that make food look good that I could use on our global broad basis. I wanted the audience to leave the theatre feeling hungry.

Y: It’s all very good references and just showing to us all branches of cinematography and Image Making are merging. A few years ago it would be not so easy to imagine the conversation about Storaro influences on the animation film about the rat. Now it’s happening. So we simply are moving to the new era of cinematography, no question about it.

What do you think is important for cinematographers of the “traditional” school, if they would like to start to work in new style, in the new paradigm of “ image directing” which you represent now? How they can make this arc?

S: Well I think that the biggest component is really having a vision and knowing what you want and knowing what you want the end result to look like.

Having good people to work with that share your vision that you communicate well with and then that it’s not that big of a leap.


Y: A lot of good experienced cinematographers as well as young students have a vision, but sometime they do not know yet how to translate this vision in the world of new technology, what do they need to do?

We know a lot of samples when on many pictures big and small, there’s a live cinematographer and there are special effects supervisor and previs artist and virtual lighter and they have tools which cinematographer doesn’t have yet, at least, so what does he need to know, does he need to learn?

S: It’s education and it’s basically understanding what the new toolkit will do, and also what the limitations are. And also “to frame” your mind up to what’s possible that’s not possible in the physical world so that you can work outside “the box. It’s becoming familiar with what the vocabulary is, and so everyone has a common vocabulary about what the tools are and about what the end result needs to be, a final visual goal

And also important to know how to break it down to build it back up again. You know, like I know how to achieve the final thing because I know how to deconstruct it.

Y: How do you work with visual effects people, are they part of your team or are they separate team?

S: They are a separate group but I work very closely with the FX lead to create FX that are easy for us to light and to integrate into the final image. I’m very much involved in the process all along the way and, you know, sitting in on all the director reviews, and, you know, we do tests on the FX to make sure that they’ll work with us, so it’s definitely a very integral part in our process.

Y: What about your cinematography influences, any artistic influence from art of the past or present? Not necessarily cinematography but photography, painting?

S: Well, like, I’m a big fan of and heavily influenced by Russian painters, especially Isaac Levitan. Valentin Serov, Nikolai Timkov, those are three of my favorites from the golden age of Russian art in 19th century. Especially Levitan, it’s like you look at a lot of his paintings and he should have been a cinematographer. He was ahead of his time, his movies, his paintings look like movies. 

Y: What would you suggest to young people or people who would like to go your steps, what do they have to do? What would you suggest if you would become a mentor?

 S: The first class I had in the art school was composition and design and color class. It’s learning how to compose an image well, learning how colors relate to each other, learning how values relate to each other, learning how to balance an image when something feels out of balance.

I think it’s all you need in the first place is basic skill of image making. I keep coming back to the words ‘image making’ all the time because for me it’s like I go back to that first class in art school and everything I learned in that, every decision I make everyday directly relates back to the stuff I learned in that class.

I just internalized all these terms of being able to look at an image and to say - “that image feels out of balance, well, here’s how we can balance it. Let’s make this a little darker, let’s make this a little greener” or whatever it is,

I think the most important is having a good grasp of image making skills, being able to break down an image, being able to know how to make image better.


Alex Cook