As the filmmakers behind Disney-Pixar’s hit “Coco” slowly walked through a Mexican village and the nearby cemetery during a Dia de los Muertos celebration while on a research trip for the movie, they were overcome by something that they saw. They knew if they were going to get the feeling and look of this tradition right, it had to be translated for the film.
“It was the most incredible thing I’d seen, there were candles everywhere and the light was amazing,” says Danielle Feinberg, director of photography, lighting, for “Coco.” “I thought, ‘I am so lucky that I get to help make that on screen,’ and also, ‘How on earth are we going to make that on screen?’”
At Pixar, the DP position is split into two jobs to better help the animation production process. There’s a director of photography, camera, who comes into the process early to map out camera moves, and a director of photography, lighting, who places and designs lights as the film progresses.
Helmer Lee Unkrich was so moved by the quality of the light and how it created unique color tones that he knew it needed to be part of nearly every aspect of the movie.
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“We saw these paths of marigold petals everywhere and the candlelight around them, it all came together in a beautiful and meaningful way,” says Unkrich. “When production design came back with these multilayered houses in the Land of the Dead and that each layer would represent the time period in which those residents lived and the lighting that existed at that time, we knew lighting would have to be a major part of what we created. We wanted the audience to feel what we felt when we were in Mexico.”
The team behind “Coco” wanted to create that light, but there were two obstacles in their way — time and money.
If the filmmakers wanted to bathe their images in the rosy, warm glow that seemed to be everywhere, from ofrendas (traditional altars made to honor the dead) to sunsets, and would likely be everywhere in their version of the Land of the Dead, they would have to hand-place those lights and then up their render times. Their output would crawl along and they would simply sink their budget.
That’s when Feinberg and her team remembered a little piece of code from another studio project that would save them.
“We have this light called a particle light that was developed on ‘The Good Dinosaur’ when there were all these fireflies flying around and each one needed to be its own source of light,” says Feinberg. “So we figured out that this code sort of tricks the computer into reading it as one expensive light when what you have visually are millions of lights.”
From that point, they pushed even further and added something developed on “Cars 3” called a bake light. It helps the computer find and create lights based on a naming scheme. Let’s say the set department wants to add a group of street lights, for example. The set department would name all the streetlights the same way and then code would be written that could find all those street lamps by how they’re named. Then the computer would build a particle light for all the street lamps. This particle light could then be adjusted as one light so all the lights can be controlled as one and don’t need to be individually placed.
“I remember when we were working on the trailer and you see the Land of Dead and in the opening shot there are probably a million street lamps,” says Feinberg. “If we had a million separate lights, the render time and render memory would be so much that we would never be able to generate an image and even with that code, that shot that was in the trailer took 400 hours a frame to render.”
Once the code was in place, they knew other departments could push the look and style of the film. Production design was able to layer the Land of the Dead so that each floor in the high-rise buildings would be populated with the light and design of the correct time period. And the streetcars and other vehicles in the invented city would also have their own vibrant lights.
Even with this major innovation, there were still struggles, refinements and tweaks along the way.
“We finally got it down to 100 hours a frame to render and that felt like the biggest victory ever,” says Feinberg. “Really, code is the basis of everything we do here because it’s under everything else and it’s what makes the images you see possible.”