Pixar's Kim White Talks About Cars 3 and Lighting for Animation
Kim White been with Pixar since 1997, most recently working on their latest hit, "Cars 3," as director of photography: lighting. She will be talking about her work on that film at the VIEW conference on Tuesday, Oct. 24 from 11 a.m. to noon. We talk to her about her career and what it's like to light for animation.
How did you get started in the film business?
When I was in art school, I studied computer animation for fine arts but the industry was still very small. After I graduated, I got a job at Sierra On-Line to do backgrounds and animation on computer adventure games. I was at an industry party when I saw a short clip from “Toy Story,” which was in production at the time. Seeing that small part of “Toy Story” had a huge affect on me and I knew that working at Pixar was what I had to do. Once "Toy Story" came out, Pixar started hiring for "A Bug's Life" so I immediately applied. Fortunately, I got hired and have been at Pixar ever since.
What drew you to lighting for animation?
I have always loved lighting. Even when I was in art school, I thought a lot about how to light my work and looked for ways to incorporate lighting in a meaningful way. I had no official lighting training but really lit more by what I thought looked good. When the people at Pixar looked at my reel, they saw this interest and potential and so hired me to be a lighter.
Tell us about your process when you first start a production?
When I first see the story, I think about how we can support it with lighting. What are we trying to say about the characters, their environment and the story we are trying to tell? I think a lot about how we want the movie to look overall, what themes we might want to establish. I also watch for the things that are going to be challenging for lighting -- whether it be a complicated character design, sequence or new technology that we want to use. That way, I can make sure that we spend time developing and exploring those things before we get them into Production.
Pixar has given you some unique lighting challenges, from the reef in "Finding Nemo" to the inside and outside of a girl's mind in "Inside Out." How did you approach these projects?
For the reef in "Finding Nemo," we knew that we were going to have to deal with large amounts of geometry, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to make that geometry manageable. We also put a lot of effort into exploring the look of the coral, how light might pass through it and how soft the surface looked. We really wanted the reef to be both beautiful and jewel-like while also being easy to use in production.
"Inside Out" was a completely different challenge. Unlike "Finding Nemo" where the world was based on real things, "Inside Out" was completely made up. It took a long time to figure out what that world should be. In Lighting, we spent a lot of time working closely with Art and the other technical departments, looking at reference and running tests as we tried to narrow down what that world and characters looked like. This continued throughout the production since there were a lot of different areas to sort out such as the Subconscious and Abstract Thought.
Your VIEW talk is about lighting "Cars 3." What were some of the particular challenges of lighting that film?
The characters in "Cars 3" are largely shaped by reflections. Lighting with reflections is a very different way to light versus lighting more familiar characters, like humans. So we had a lot to learn -- especially those of us that hadn't worked on a “Cars” movie before. We were also working with new technology that gave us more accurate reflections and shadows, which was very exciting for a movie with shiny cars. However having that new technology meant that our approach to lighting the characters wasn't exactly the same as it had been for the first two movies, so we had to figure that out. "Finding Dory" was the first movie using the new technology but it was mostly underwater and didn't use the new tools the way we were going to on “Cars 3,” where the characters are above ground and shiny. So there were still many unknowns to iron out.
What has been your most challenging project so far and why?
Every project is different and carries its own challenges. Also, I've grown with each movie I work on, so I find that there are new challenges as my responsibilities change and I push myself in new ways. I always feel like I have room to improve and every movie is unique and difficult in its own way. On "Toy Story 3” it was my first time being a DP so I had a lot to learn about the role. “Inside Out” had the mind world, which was completely made up and had to be defined -- in part with lighting. “Cars 3” had reflective characters, a quick schedule and new technolog,y which required me to approach the movie differently than I had my first two projects.
When you watch movies, live-action or animated, do you find yourself thinking about how you'd do things differently?
When I watch movies, I don't think so much about what I would differently as much as I think about why they made the choices that they did. You can learn a lot by keeping an open mind and seeing how other people use lighting. If it seems like they missed an opportunity, it can be fun to think about how they could have approached things differently. I definitely find myself doing that sometimes. I'm always paying close attention to what I'm looking at on the screen and trying to learn from it.
What projects that you've seen lately have inspired you the most?
I love watching "Game of Thrones" and seeing how they light the various scenes. It's really cool that they've had so many seasons to explore that world and those characters. There is some really beautiful lighting on that show. I just saw "Sicario" again and, while there are some difficult scenes to watch in that movie, there is some poetic and interesting lighting. Roger Deakins was the cinematographer for that movie. He also worked on the new “Blade Runner” movie, so I'm excited to see it.
You've been with Pixar for quite a while. It seems like a really fun place to work. What's it like there in Emeryville, Calif.? Is it really as free-spirited and lively as it looks?
It is and it isn't. It's great to work with so many talented people who love what they do, and there is a wonderful sense of fun at Pixar. However, I don't think it's quite as goofy as the press can make it seem, but it is very creative. It's also a lot of hard work at times and I think that part gets overlooked.
You've been to VIEW Conference before. What do you like best about the experience?
I love meeting other people from the computer graphic industry and getting to spend time with them. It's inspiring to see the presentations. I feel like I learn a lot from them. It's also wonderful to be surrounded by both speakers and professionals who are passionate about computer graphics.
What presentations are you looking forward to most at this year's conference?
I'm interested in so many! How do I narrow it down to just a few? I'm excited to hear about “Blade Runner” from John Nelson and Baobab Studio's work from Eric Darnell. Alessandro Jacomini is talking about "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" and I really want to see that. Mark Mullery is talking about "The Breadwinner" and since I'm a big fan of Cartoon Saloon, I'm eager to hear about that. I'm also curious to see Novelle Triaureau and Mike Ford talk about "Smurfs.” Then of course there are the talks from the great people that I've met at past VIEW Conferences that I'm really looking forward to, such as Shannon Tindle's talk about storytelling and Mark Osborne's presentation about creative collaboration on "The Little Prince.” There are some interesting Masterclasses too, such as Jason Bickerstaff's Character presentation and Megan Brain's talk about paper models for "Kubo and The Two Strings.” There are really a lot of great things to see!