Meeting Vittorio Storaro 1999


“Cinematography means ‘writing with light’ in Italian,” declares renowned DP Vittorio Storaro. “We use the language of light to tell stories.”

The three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer of Reds, The Last Emperor, and Apocalypse Now used this image to inspire filmmakers gathered at Sony Pictures’ movie lot in Los Angeles earlier this year. But these were not traditional camera people who filled the auditorium to capacity-they were digital artists from Sony Pictures Imageworks, and the “light” they work with resides inside computers. But to Storaro, the aesthetic challenges are the same. “The new modern camera person,” he asserts, “is you, the digital artist.”

Just days later in a nearby theater, Pixar Animation Studios’ Sharon Calahan demonstrated his point. In a presentation to the L.A. Chapter of Siggraph, she showed how she used light to create different moods in A Bug’s Life, the film on which she is credited as director of photography (the first such credit for an all-CG film). While CinemaScope images of translucent foliage and beautifully back-lit characters played on screen, Calahan described how some scenes required as many as 150 different light sources. Comparing this to the 32 light sources typically used in Toy Story, for which she was lighting supervisor, Calahan remarks, “We wanted more sophisticated images to show the complexity of this world.”

As the fledgling art of digital moviemaking becomes increasingly ambitious, the contributions of people like Calahan will undoubtedly become more important. Director John Lasseter likes to say that Pixar’s movies are shot entirely on location in the computer, so Calahan’s DP credit was significant. It is a first, but it will not be the last.

“I think the idea of me fulfilling more of a DP role on A Bug’s Life came from John wanting to delegate a lot of the responsibility of the day-to-day directing of the lighting to me,” Calahan says. Her role also involved camerawork-“like depth-of-field stuff” -but she notes that Lasseter and co-director Andrew Stanton pretty much knew what they wanted.

“Why John wanted to see me more as DP on this film was to have somebody other than him paying attention to the big picture, to the movie as a whole-paying attention to all the continuity issues and tying it all together,” says Calahan. “It was a relief for him to let go of that to a certain extent and know it was being taken care of. And I do feel I was successful about having a cohesive look to the film, indoors and out, day or night.”

While A Bug’s Life obviously was not “shot” like a conventional movie, Calahan thinks that the collaboration behind the film was not unlike traditional relationships between directors and cinematographers. “The role of a DP in live action has a lot to do with who they’re paired with as a director,” she observes. “For instance, some directors are totally all over the camera; they know where they want it placed, but don’t know anything about lighting and don’t want to have to know anything. They hire a DP whose specialty is lighting and have that person take care of it. Other directors have the opposite interest. But they all like to work with DPs who complement them. Everyone brings different strengths to the table.”

In preparing for A Bug’s Life, Calahan says she watched countless movies with production designer Bill Cone, “just like a DP and a production designer would on a live-action film.” To demonstrate one source of inspiration to the Siggraph audience, she screened a scene from Fellini’s Armarcord in which thick fog conveyed a foreboding mood. Then she followed with a pivotal scene from A Bug’s Life in which CG fog was used to similar effect. This example, recalled Calahan, was what convinced Lasseter to handle the scene this way.

Pacific Data Images used a similar approach while preparing its CG feature ANTZ, though PDI does not use the term DP. “For art direction, we look at traditional animation,” notes Tim Johnson, who co-directed ANTZ and is now preparing Tusker. “But for execution-in a cinematographic sense-we look exclusively at live-action films. If you work in a 3D medium, there’s nothing in the world of drawn animation that can really be your resource for composition. Once you extend the true third dimension to it, you really are in the world of the great cinematographers, and that’s where you should be studying.”

“You have to use the art that’s gone before,” agrees Scott Anderson, the Sony Imageworks visual effects supervisor who hosted Vittorio Storaro’s lecture. “Pixar has realized that cinematography is as important to what they do as it is to a regular film. Everything that digital artists do is based on filmmaking. For digital artists to try and move forward without recognizing the art that’s gone before would be a big mistake.”

Anderson is actively trying to foster the connection between the digital and traditional realms by organizing cinematography classes for artists at Sony. As that studio tackles more computer-generated characters in live-action “hybrid” films like Stuart Little, Anderson says, “We have more and more of a responsibility to work with the cinematographer and light our characters as a DP would, to create the right emotion.” He has invited DP Jost Vacano, whom he is working with on Paul Verhoeven’s The Hollow Man, to go over scenes with his key lighting people. Anderson hopes Vacano will help his team understand how a DP would light the kinds of characters that they are working on if those characters were real instead of virtual. Vacano’s advice, he says, “can’t be translated literally to digital because we don’t have the tools, but we will creatively try to emulate the feel.”

The difficulties of CG are especially evident in the compartmentalized process of lighting. Since shadows and lights are not tied together as in real life, there is “negative fill light,” and depth-of-field does not come for free. Anderson explains: “Some of the limitations you’ve seen in digital work over recent years, where things tend to look overlit and gray or flat is due to two things. One is the lack of experience in lighting by many digital artists, and the other is a very severe limitation in our tools. Digital lighting is amazingly crude in this day and age. We need to develop the same tools that cinematographers have-like different kinds of lights and gels and barn doors and spots. The things they have at their disposal are so necessary to the digital realm, and we are operating at a bit of a handicap because I don’t feel those tools really exist yet.”

A large percentage of digital studios approach lighting by using Pixar’s RenderMan software. While that code continues to be refined, it’s hardly intuitive and requires the writing of “shaders” that describe surface textures. But Calahan, a former illustrator, calls Pixar’s tools “half painterly” and notes that they provide great flexibility. “If we want magenta shadows, we can make magenta shadows,” she observes. “It’s an artistic choice. In the live-action world, if you had blue lights in a scene and you really wanted magenta shadows, that might be kind of difficult to pull off. We can do things that are completely non-physical, just because we want to.”

But some in the field believe that tomorrow’s breakthrough work will require CG lighting tools that also have the power to mimic the way light behaves in the real world. Notable among them are the artists at Blue Sky Studios, whose creative director Chris Wedge recently won the Oscar for best animated short with Bunny. Wedge and three digital effects supervisors created the film’s luminous lighting with proprietary code called CGI Studio.

R&D VP Carl Ludwig, who is responsible for the software, notes: “Chris had the capability with the software we use to say, ‘Bring this area up a little bit, and tone that area down.’ He could direct it, very much the way a director on a live shoot directs his lighting.” Despite that similarity, Ludwig does not think a DP credit fits the CG medium. “There is a place for a person who’s responsible for the visual quality of a film, who is the ‘mirror’ of the director of photography. But I think we need another term because it is not photography.”

PDI’s Johnson also feels it is a stretch to port the term DP over to CG. “Someone who designs the narrative lighting of a CG film makes a huge contribution,” he says, “but it’s different than the live-action meaning of the term. In the context of animation, it frankly means that sometimes they’re doing a lot more work than their live-action counterparts would do and have greater responsibilities. Other times, they may not have as much.”

“If you set up and light a room for a live-action scene, you can pretty much, with a few tweaks, get all your camera angles,” Johnson says, citing a basic production difference. “You don’t have to tear everything down and start over for every shot. With CG you do inherit your models, but you often don’t inherit the lighting-you can’t set up a two-camera shoot. It’s really labor intensive in the extreme. I don’t know if it will ever stop being that labor-intensive, and part of me hopes it doesn’t. The fun of an animated film is watching something which was obviously fashioned by hand, where decisions were made about every single element on screen.”

Put the animated “genre” is clearly evolving, as digital techniques are used increasingly to create images that appear photographically real. The leader in this trend is obviously Industrial Light + Magic, which uses many of the same techniques as the CG animation studios but applies them toward different goals. “Is there a need for a DP to help design shots, select focal lengths, and talk with the director about the concept of camera movement?” asks computer animator Peter Daulton regarding ILM’s CG style. As a former motion-control cameraman, Daulton thinks the answer is “yes.” And in the new Star Wars, he grappled with all the issues surrounding CG camerawork.

As lead animator on the Podracer sequence, he had 10 minutes of shots-many of which are all-digital-that showed vehicles racing at 500mph. “I got the assignment to try and bring a reality-based camera move sensibility to that sequence,” he says. “John Knoll, the visual effects supervisor, said we should have an idea of where the ‘cameras’ were and how they were photographing the race. He asked us to imagine that if technology really existed to race these pods at 500mph and we were a professional motion picture crew, how would we shoot them?”

Daulton recalls thinking: “Is the camera mounted on a 500mph camera car? Would the operator behind that viewfinder have a hard time keeping ideal composition? If you look at most action sequences, the cameras aren’t perfectly stable. The camera operators are making compositional choices on the fly and trying to follow the action. Typically there’s some high-frequency shake to the camerawork. Audiences are so used to seeing that, and if they don’t see it, I believe it reads false to them. They’re not sure why, but they sense, ‘That’s an effect.'” He adds that, fortunately, it is very easy to add float and shake to a computer-generated camera move. “It just takes an eye to know what looks natural and what’s too much.”

In CG filmmaking, a DP’s knowledge of where to add the right measure of film artifacts-like lens flare, motion blur, and camera shake-is crucial. “Those are things that really heighten believability,” says Daulton. “The biggest compliment I could get for the camerawork in the Podrace would be someone saying, ‘Where did you shoot those backgrounds?'”

Of course the danger for CG DPs, cautions Daulton, is that you can do anything with a virtual camera. “That’s not necessarily a good thing,” he states. “People sometimes come up with very wild, impossible moves.”

PDI’s Tim Johnson agrees. “To have a computer do much more than a real camera could, simply because it’s capable of doing more, does not necessarily mean it’s the wisest way to tell your story,” he warns. “One of the worst things you can do in a computer-animated movie is fly the camera all over the place simply because you can.”

While camera movement and lighting are still separate disciplines in the digital realm, that may change in time. “At ILM, lighting and animation are two separate areas-not that one person couldn’t do both,” Daulton notes. “If traditional directors of photography wanted to get into computer graphics, I believe both choices are potentially open to them.”

And that may happen more and more. Sharon Calahan, who has quietly spent 15 years pioneering the art of CG lighting, now sees a brighter spotlight focused on what her expertise has achieved. “I’ve noticed that since I got the DP credit,” she laughs, “there are live-action DPs who now want to get into this business!”