How Does Pixar Animate Films So Realistically?

Pixar is an American computer animation company that is famous for its feature films, some of which include the Incredibles, Finding Dory, Soul, and Inside Out. Pixar revolutionized the animation industry through innovative technology and incredible storytelling. The company was responsible for core developments in computer graphics history, blending technology and arts to make many of their films possible, leading to their massive success. For example, Incredibles 2 was released in 2018, yet holds the position of the top-grossing animated movie at the North American box office from the past 40 years.

Source: Statista

Pixar animators follow a standard pipeline process to go from concept to finished product. First, they begin with a story. The writers draft the script while story artists create the storyboards. Storyboards are preliminary sketches that roughly illustrate how each scene will look and go. Editors take the storyboards and group them together into a detailed flipbook called a story reel. Then, character artists lay out character designs by researching characters and objects in the real world, in order to portray them as accurately as possible. Color scripts are also created for each scene to convey the right mood and message.

The next part is where the technology comes into play. Through computer modeling, characters are able to take form in a 3D space. They are molded into a mesh and sculpted, rigged with control points for movement, shaded, and simulated. Animators are able to use virtual light sources to draw attention to certain story points or to convey a specific mood. Finally, all of the digital data is translated into real frames of film, in a process called rendering.

The following images below depict the sequence of iterations it took to go from sketch to final render for a scene in Monsters University:

Source: Disney-Pixar
Source: Disney-Pixar
Source: Disney-Pixar
Source: Disney-Pixar
Source: Disney-Pixar
Source: Disney-Pixar

In the beginning, animation was done solely through illustration. Every film was drawn and photographed into a film reel. However, in 1979, Pixar began to technologize the film industry. Pixar Animation Studios developed Presto, a proprietary animation software, in 2012. The software was originally created for their movie Brave and has been used on every movie since.

It allows animators to work in a live, interactive environment, meaning that they can move characters around, adjust the view of the screen to birds-eye, zoom in and out, etc. Character details down to the facial expression and positions of the characters’ fingers are adjustable at a live frame rate. Presto is not available to the public and is only used in-house. However, Pixar uses a mix of in-house and third-party softwares to create their films, including AutoDesk’s Maya and Renderman.

During the computer modeling stage of the animation pipeline process, many animators use AutoDesk Maya to create virtual 3D models. Pixar actually worked in collaboration with Maya to create Presto. Maya is a 3D computer animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering software that is available to the general public. This software is one of the most well-known and popular softwares in the realm of 3D animation because it allows artists to modify their work easily, and is why so many freelancers and large studios use this tool.

When artists first start off with an illustration, they must wireframe the 3D shape. A crucial component of creating realistic and complex models that are believable is its movement. A mesh contains the set of vertices and faces that define the underlying shape of an object. Pictured below is a simplified example of what a mesh can look like.

Source: Machinimatrix

Then, subdivision surfaces are created using a recursive algorithmic method. It is the iterative method of subdividing each face of the mesh into smaller faces. In other words, it creates new vertices and faces that output a much denser mesh.

Source: Wikipedia

This allows modeling artists to have more control and detail over the creation of a complex object or character, because the more points there are on a shape, the more manipulation that is achievable. In the context of AutoDesk Maya, artists can subdivide mesh to tweak or even out specific areas without having the entire mesh change. This ability was a major breakthrough in the animation industry because artists could now hone in on specific details, such as how a character’s face moves and makes varying facial expressions.

Another critical feature of Maya is rigging. Rigs are the skeletal and muscular system that allow digital 3D models to move in an appropriate level of flexibility for its context. Rigging itself is the method of adding controls to a digital model to control how it moves. Movement of any object or character has a ripple effect on the rest of its body. For example, when Sully from Monsters Inc walks, it is not only the legs that move, but his arms, hands, feet, neck, and even head.

Source: The Science Behind Pixar

The picture on the left above shows the wireframed 3D shape of Sully. The picture on the right above shows Sully with his bones and joints visualized for rigging. Once animators finish the wireframe of the model, they add the bones and joints so that they can add control points that will be used to create the different poses and movement.

Source: Design Engine

This GIF illustrates the finished product of Sully.

Rigging is a crucial component of the process because it sets the foundation for the animation. In Maya, animators are able to use a quick rig tool that automates the process of rigging. For characters other than humans, like animals and props, animators can create custom rigs.

Besides the movement of characters’ bodies, something that Pixar animators struggled with was animating supplemental objects, such as hair, fur, clothing, and water. For instance, in the Pixar film Brave, hair was a critical part of the movie. The main character, Merida, has untamed and vibrant locks that symbolizes her wild and independent spirit. Animators were able to overcome this hurdle and achieve an incredibly realistic look by computer-simulating hair using a mass spring system. In other words, it was defined by physics and programmed into the computer.

As Merida moves, gravity and movement pull her locks down, but reshape back to their original form, like a spring. Animators experimented with different types of springs, such as stiffer springs and looser springs. The perfect solution was using a spring with a core spring inside. This way, Merida’s hair had a natural and bouncy effect without her locks unwinding too much and looking unrealistic.

AutoDesk Maya enables users to generate realistic curls and waves and mimic bouncing motions through simulation features like Stretch Resistance, Compression Resistance, and Bend Resistance settings. Users can also create specific types of curls catered to their vision, through the many features that allow for customization and details.

Source: Inside Science

The next steps in the animation process is shading. Shading is the process of making illustrations varying levels of darkness to accurately depict the amount of light that hits it. Without implementing shading, objects, characters, and backgrounds will look flat and unrealistic. For example, the picture below illustrates how hair looks with and without shadowing.

Source: Pixar Animation Studios

In Maya, users can control which objects cast shadows. They can also create depth map or raytraced shadows. Depth maps are data files that have the information on the distance of an object from a light source. The depth map “tells” Maya which areas of the scene are reached by the light rays and which aren’t, producing an accurate shadow effect. Ray-traced shadows are created by tracing the rays of light coming from the light source.

The final steps in the computer animation process is lighting and rendering. Renderman is a very powerful software engine used for 3D rendering. Launched in 1988 by Pixar, it is now free for all non-commercial purposes. This means that anyone can use the software for personal use, projects, research, education, and more. Renderman, as suggested by their name, is a renderer.

Rendering is the process of converting all of the data and programming that went into creating a virtual scene into a final rendered image. In other words, it is the final tool at the end of a production pipeline that combines all of the 3D assets that were created for the film. Instead of processing an image a pixel at a time, Renderman made it possible for artists to render a line at a time on an easy-to-use graphical interface. Because of this, artists are now able to realize their creative visions without an intense level of background knowledge on technical concepts.

Additionally, Renderman has a multitude of features that help create high-end visual effects and animations. Motion blur is a feature that simulates how our eyes see fast motion. It essentially blurs fast-moving objects to make them look as if we were seeing them in real life.

Source: Pixar Animation Studios

Another feature is subsurface scattering. Subsurface scattering renders translucent materials and objects, such as skin, flesh, fruit, and milk, to look more realistic.

Source: Pixar Renderman

Path tracing is another feature that simulates how light bounces off of objects. In the real world, a light ray hits a surface, bounces off, and creates new light rays. This path of light contains many rays. Renderman takes this notion and simulates it in the software by calculating all of the light rays and paths taken in order to create the final rendered image. For example, a laser might cast an ambient glow and become a part of the reality of the frame, rather than seeming like an after-effect. Or in the picture below, an image of a car is rendered with path tracing in order to simulate a very realistic effect when light is shone on it.

Source: Renderman

Lighting scenes can also be done in Renderman. Lighting is important to include in 3D animation because it not only gives an accurate depiction of the weather and time of day, but it communicates the story more effectively and conveys appropriate moods. It also allows the lighting department to achieve a cinematic look and style. Renderman gives animators access to built-in geometric lights, such as the DomeLight, DiscLight, and DistantLight. Besides geometric lights, there are different kinds of spotlights and customizable properties in regards to emission color and light intensity.

DomeLight || Source: Renderman
DiscLight || Source: Renderman
DistanceLight || Source: Renderman

The Land of the Dead in the movie Coco could not have achieved its striking and complex rendered background without the 8 million lights that were incorporated using Renderman.

Source: Pixar Animation Studios

Full length films contain a massive amount of information, all of which needs to get rendered out in order to get the final production. To put it into context, Toy Story took the efforts of 117 computers running all day in order to render. Hence, Pixar created Renderman in order to process and handle all of the data. Today, Toy Story can be rendered completely under the amount of time it would take for someone to watch the entire film.

Animation softwares like Maya AutoDesk and Renderman completely changed how the animation industry works. Complex images and full length films are able to be rendered more effectively by computers in shorter periods of time. Artists are also no longer held back from their creative visions due to the limitations of technology. The abilities of Maya and Renderman allow artists to create realistic motion, complex facial expressions, beautifully-lit background scenes, and other high-end visual effects in their work.

And that is not it. Maya and Renderman continue to come out with updated versions that offer new benefits and features for users. Renderman recently came out with version 23. Some of the updates include USD support to improve team collaboration with the ability to exchange data and improved interactivity. Maya also recently came out with Maya Version 2022. This version enables users to interchange 3D data across different digital content creation tools, edit animations quicker with a new Ghosting Editor, and have more control over the modeling toolset. These are great advances for the arts industry, as producing animations requires the collaboration of many interdisciplinary teams and a lot of time to generate the final product.

There are many different types of users needing animation softwares. Artists ranging from architects constructing architectural visualizations, NASA visualizing satellite data, video game concept artists shaping the look of video games, and any artist pursuing photo and personal project exploration, can benefit from Maya and Renderman’s services.

Therefore, these softwares have had and will continue to make a profound impact on the arts and entertainment industry. In fact, the 3D animation market was worth 254 billion U.S. dollars in 2017. It grew by 6.2% by 2020, putting the global market at a value of 70 billion U.S. dollars.

Source: Statista

As the demand for movies, mobile apps, mapping technologies, and video games rise and popularity increases, the 3D animation market’s growth potential is astronomical. As seen in the bar chart below, there are varying techniques in 3D animation, including 3D modeling, motion graphics, 3D rendering, and visual effects. All of these techniques are projected to increase each year.

Source: Grand View Research

In conclusion, Pixar has been able to create such realistic animation films due to their dedication to exploring new technologies. Maya AutoDesk and Renderman are some of the softwares that Pixar has used in generating their films that are now loved by millions. 3D computer modeling technology has not only allowed for more efficient and faster animating, but it has opened the door for more people who are interested in joining the industry. It is easier than ever to download the software and begin learning how to animate. This does not exclude artists who are already in the industry. They are no longer limited in the things that they can create with art, and their visions can become reality with this advanced technology.

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