The scene wasn’t working. It was a moment from the Pixar film Coco , still in production at the time—the part when the family of Miguel, the main character, finds out he’s been hiding a guitar. It takes place at twilight or just after, a pink-and-purple-tinged time of day everywhere, but even more so in fictional Pixarian Mexico. And Danielle Feinberg, the photography director in charge of lighting the movie, didn’t like it. She pressed Pause with a frown.
Lighting a computer-rendered Pixar movie isn’t like lighting a film with real actors and real sets. The software Pixar uses creates virtual sets and virtual illumination, just 1s and 0s, constrained only by the physics they’re programmed with. Lights, pixels, action. Real-world cameras and lenses have chromatic aberration, sensitivities or insensitivities to specific wavelengths of light, and ultimately limits to the colors they can sense and convey—their gamut. But at Pixar the virtual cameras can see an infinitude of light and color. The only real limit is the screen that will display the final product. And it probably won’t surprise you to hear that the Pixarians are pushing those limits too.
Of course the people at Pixar still have to make all the choices that’ll produce the final outcome. To prepare, Feinberg had gone on multiple trips with the team to Mexico, taking lots of pictures and notes on the lighting and colors she saw there. And even though this critical moment in Miguel’s house looked lovely, it didn’t look right . But it was awfully late to realize it. “We had finished lighting. We were at the point where we were going to show it to the director,” Feinberg says. “And I asked the lighter to put a green fluorescent light in the kitchen.”
It was an unusual request. In the conventional chromatic grammar of today’s motion pictures, greenish-tinged fluorescence usually means a movie is about to turn eerie, even ominous. But Feinberg wanted to see the kinds of lights she remembered from the warm, homey kitchens they’d seen in Mexico. “I wasn’t sure the director was going to be happy with me putting green fluorescent light in the background,” Feinberg says. “It was a little bit of a risk.”
But after seeing the light, the director, Lee Unkrich, agreed. It looked like Mexico, he said. He remembered those lights and the resulting mood from their travels too. The green glow, which usually had one narrative meaning, assumed another.
In a way, every filmmaker is really just playing with moving light and color on surfaces. That’s the whole ball game, a filmic given. But Pixar takes it further, or perhaps just does it more self-consciously and systematically. Its emotionally weighty, computer-generated animated films deploy precisely calibrated color and light to convey narrative and emotion—from the near-total absence of green in WALL-E (until postapocalyptic robots find the last plant on Earth) to the luminous orange marigolds that symbolize Miguel’s trip to the magical Land of the Dead in Coco through the contrast between the cool blue luminosity of the afterlife with the warm, snuggly sepia of New York City in last year’s Soul.
In fact, almost every Pixar movie works within a specific color palette, a story-specific gamut that filmmakers like Feinberg pull from and use to plan the look of each scene, a road map known as the color script. But Coco complicated that process. When its story moves to the Land of the Dead, it cranks up all the dials, colorwise. Those scenes look made out of neon, like a bio-organic version of Tokyo’s Shinjuku District at night. “When it came time to do the color script, it was like, ‘The Land of the Dead has every color. All of it takes place at night, so we can’t use time of day to elicit emotion. There is no weather in the Land of the Dead, so we can’t use weather to elicit emotion.’ Those are three pretty typical things we use to support the story,” Feinberg says.