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How Pixar brings its animated movies to life

September 15, 2015, 12:08 AM UTC

For animated moviemaker Pixar, creating stories that resonate with filmgoers is just one piece of the puzzle. The other is using technology to bring stories to life like in a scene from the hit movie Up showing hundreds of colorful balloons floating in the sky.

The Pixar team follows the mantra, “Art challenges the tech and the tech inspires the art,” Angelique Reisch, Pixar’s technical lighting director, said on stage Monday at Facebook’s (FB) annual technology engineering conference in San Jose. She was there to talk about Pixar’s engineering team and strategy as well as the technology the company uses to create movies.

To ensure that its animation is high quality, Pixar constantly looks to improve its technology infrastructure and build new software to help animators, Reisch explained. Pixar’s staff should spend less time solving technical problems and “more time creating beautiful images,” said Reisch.

For over 25 years, Pixar, which is owned by The Walt Disney Company (DIS), has used an image processing technology called RenderMan that converts two-dimensional images into three-dimensional graphics. It’s the core technology that gives depth to flat images by adding more color and shading.

But RenderMan is not the same software as it was over two decades ago. Pixar has been upgrading the technology to make it easier for animators to do their job. One major development is a new feature that automatically adds lighting around objects in a scene so that animators don’t have to — even after the finalized scene is already completed.

In Pixar’s recently released movie Inside Out, an ever-present glow continuously emanates from the character, Joy. Joy is essentially a source of light in the movie that literally lights up characters and objects as if she were a lamp. The light that radiates from her body must spill onto other objects in a realistic way.

Using the upgraded rendering software, animators didn’t have to manually insert lighting to each scene when Joy is on-screen. Instead, the software automatically added light to her along with illuminating background scenery and her companions. The result was a “huge efficiency” gain for Pixar in terms of work, Reisch said.

But with all the advancements in lighting techniques and better graphics, Pixar has also had to improve its computing power to accommodate resource-heavy software. The company maintains a vast data center known as a render farm that’s filled with thousands of servers, storage hardware, and other gear needed to bring its animated movies to life.

Reisch showed the audience a graphic that highlighting the number of processors—the brains of a computer—it took to create individual movies over the years.

Pixar processor count over the years per movie. Jonathan Vanian
Jonathan Vanian

It took around 3,000 processors to render the movies The Incredibles and Cars, two films from the mid 2000s. For more recent films like Monsters University and Inside Out, that number has soared to around 20,000 processors.

All that extra processing power is noticeable when you study the hairs of the animated creature, Sulley, who has appeared in the movies Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University. When the original Monsters movie first appeared in 2001, Sulley had 1.1 million hairs covering his body. By Monsters University, released in 2013, Sulley had 5.5 million individual hairs.

You can thank Pixar’s thousands of computers running in the company’s data center for making it possible for Sulley to have grown all that hair.

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