By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Disney/Pixar.
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By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Disney/Pixar.
As Buzz Lightyear experiences identity issues throughout the Toy Story franchise, the beloved animated character takes on a new persona in Lightyear, as director Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) wanted to make the movie that inspired Andy to buy the toy. But do not expect a carbon-copy interpretation since the demands and intention of the project were entirely different. “The key for us was to capture the elements of what people love about Buzz,” states Galyn Susman, Producer of Lightyear. “In the Toy Story world, Buzz is more defined in relationship to Woody. We are now making a feature where Buzz is the protagonist, so obviously some of the things that make Buzz endearing as a sidekick aren’t substantive enough to necessarily carry through a feature film. The thing that we came up with that we love about Buzz is that he is out of step with reality.”
The theme was built into the narrative structure. “Buzz and his compatriots are stranded on a planet and need to develop a fuel that will help them to reach hyperspeed so that they can get back to Earth,” explains Susman. “What they all discover is every time he goes on a test flight, because he’s approaching the speed of light, time passes slowly for him. He ends up spending act one like a skipping stone through time. His disconnect with reality is that he’s frozen in a time that doesn’t exist anymore, and everybody else on the planet is moving on with their lives. It’s much more serious than Toy Story. You can’t have a sci-fi action epic adventure kind of movie if you don’t feel like you have real stakes.”
A major source of inspiration were the blockbuster films of the 1980s and 1990s. “It would need to be emotional, relatable and funny,” remarks director MacLane. “But the core idea was how do we make this movie so that it has the excitement potential of the sci-fi movies that people of my age grew up with that gave you ‘that was awesome’ feeling. We achieved that with a combination of elements. Some of it is limitation. You could only afford one probe droid or one [additional prop element], but that gave a clarity and simplicity to things that I enjoyed. Creatively, I wanted to chase a look that was cartoony enough to be animated but realistic enough to be concerned about the character’s safety, and allowed the characters who sit in that universe to feel like they belong there. I wanted to make a film that was making clear decisions visually about what the audience is seeing. I wanted the art direction to be something that feels clunky, substantial and manufactured.”
There is a major reason why Lightyear does not look like previous Pixar movies. “Pixar has a great library called ‘The Backlot,’” explains Tim Evatt, Production Designer of Lightyear. “It’s just a library of pieces that have already been used in previous existing films, and I knew that in order for Lightyear to have its own language we almost need to not use anything from The Backlot. We needed to replenish and make our own backlot. The strength of having a modeling art department is that we were able to replenish our pieces and make a new movie.” The art directors were proficient with 3D modeling, which eased the transition of 2D concepts. “They were able to get the shape language into 3D as soon as possible, start building things in 3D and distribute those pieces to the other departments,” adds Evatt. “We weren’t having to talk about what is the shape language.”
“I knew that in order for Lightyear to have its own language we almost need to not use anything from The Backlot [Pixar shot library]. We needed to replenish and make our own backlot. The strength of having a modeling art department is that we were able to replenish our pieces and make a new movie.”
—Tim Evatt, Production Designer
There was an extra dimension of complexity in the lighting, especially for the spaceship cockpit shots. “When Buzz is flying out in deep space, we relied on a lot of the self-illuminated buttons in his cockpit,” states Ian Megibben, Cinematographer – Lighting on Lightyear. “On our past movies we have tracked whether a light is on or off all the way, from our modeling department through animation and into lighting and rendering. But it was far more complex with this because before, in the past, it was whether a car had its headlights on or off. Here Buzz has 300 different buttons in his cockpit, and they all had to be something that the animator could animate on and off, and we’re going to see that reflected in his helmet.” An approach was adopted that was similar to using LED panels for The Mandalorian. Comments Megibben, “We would capture probes of our environments, and a lot of times, for the sake of optimization, the set dressing department would say, ‘We’re not going to dress anything behind the camera.’ And I said, ‘I actually need those! Because we’re going to see that reflected in Buzz’s helmet.’ This is the first time that we leaned into something that nerdy and specific.”
When it came to the animation rigs, Buzz was treated differently when wearing the Space Ranger suit. “When he’s in the Space Ranger suit, his body is not in it. It’s just a hard-rigged suit,” notes David DeVan, Animation Supervisor of Lightyear. “When he’s wearing soft goods in other scenes, that is his body underneath the fabric. We made a model of Buzz, and then made the hard-suit Buzz.” The hard suit has inherent challenges. “You have to cheat everything because you can’t get his arms in front of him,” observes DeVan. “We had to accept the limitations. Part of it is accepting that he is in this big barrel thing, and that’s part of how he moves. We wanted to incorporate that into the motion and feeling of things. The shots where Buzz dives and rolls in the fight scene were exciting and tactile because they incorporate the limitations and physicality of what’s there.”
The animation of the adversarial Emperor Zurg and his robots followed a ‘less is more’ principle. “We always talk about how Yoda doesn’t have to do anything,” remarks DeVan. “The harder you show them working, the less powerful they must be.” The mechanical limitations of feline robot companion Sox were played to full advantage. “We went through the gambit of how cat-like is she?,” DeVan says, boiling it down to what’s funny. “The challenge with Sox early on was it had to have rotational joints on a complex shape and it took some time to figure out how it was going to work.”
Effects like smoke plumes should be photoreal enough to be believable but also be able to sit seamlessly in a stylized animation environment. “The process for me is always, let’s get as much reference as we possibly can of the real-world thing that we’re looking at and figure out what it means to hit that,” explains Bill Watral, FX Supervisor of Lightyear. “You start a simulation and target that. Then you start taking away levels of detail or adding stylized silhouettes to things. You also get reference of really stylized stuff like Japanese anime of space shuttles launching and put that side by side with SpaceX footage. What is the difference between these two things? It’s the levels of frequency and details. Then you try to find this happy balance between the level of detail that feels right and makes you believe that this is the phenomenon you’re witnessing, but not so much detail that your eye goes there and you’re starting to scrutinize it in relationship to all of the other work around you.”
Producing a sun went faster than originally thought. “That was one of those effects I wish I had six months to work on, and we got it done in about a month,” remarks Watral. “It was challenging because that’s one of those [where] we could have made a realistic sun, but it just didn’t fit in the world. We really stylized the heck out of that one. It lent itself to the time frame that we had to work on it, too. [We had] Enrique Vila, the effects artist, and the compositor on that. They worked tightly together and we added layers as needed. Originally, we thought that we were going to add a lot more detail into the sun to see it, but Angus embraced this idea from Sunshine where everything is really freaking blown out, which added to the sense of danger when Buzz slingshots around the sun and there is this heatshield that comes on. The way to sell that was to bloom things out. We created a library of arcs and magnetic loops. In the end, when we started to bloom it, we realized that we could back off on some of that detail because we didn’t need it, and it was actually introducing too much chatter on the images, drawing our eye away. We’re always dropping detail away from where we don’t want you to be looking.”
Atmospherics were essential in creating the various biomes found on the lunar-locked planet of T’Kani Prime. “When I first got onto the film, that was the first thing we tackled,” remarks Watral. “On previous films, we had a thing called dress effects, which is basically an effect that you can dress in at lighting time in our lighting software Katana. But that was relatively limited to mostly semi-homogeneous volumes to fill the air a little bit. We knew in this film that we were going to need big plumes and big vistas with plumes dressed out all over the place and all over the planet. We took a month and went in and rewired that system to be more robust. We added all of these new simulations at a much larger scale and squirreled those away on disks. We made a handshake deal with the lighting artists where we said, ‘We have these simulations that can be cached out at a regular speed, half speed, quarter speed, and a static version. You can choose anyone of those versions you want on this pulldown in Katana. You pick the silhouette you want, the speed for the scale, then place it in the scene and dress it around.”
Getting access to extra render cores was factored into the budget. “We had to store this data to begin with. Storage is not expensive, but also not cheap. The render time is a huge thing. We originally explored ways at render time to re-rasterize these grids into voxels that are larger further away while the closeup voxels are smaller. But in the end, what we found is if we let RenderMan do its thing, it was mostly okay as long as we split the layers separately and lighting had control over it. We could iterate on those independently and had enough time. Lightspeed is the optimization section of the lighting department, and they go in and turn all of the nobs and optimizations to try to get things to render the best. We’re trying for somewhere between 30 to 40 hours per frame. Some of these with lots of volumes in them will be a lot heavier than that. But that’s where we’re at right now. We’re in the thick of it.”