Director of Photography for Lighting, Pixar
written & illustrated by Susan Bin AB '16
“When I was seven years old, some adult asked—you know how adults love to ask kids that—‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I want to be an artist,’ and this person crushed my dreams without realizing it. ‘You want to be an artist? You can’t make a living being an artist!’”
Seven months after graduating from Harvard, Danielle Feinberg joined Pixar in 1997. Two decades later, she has an impressive roster that includes the world’s most beloved and popular films from A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Brave. After finishing work on Brave in 2012, Danielle Feinberg was attached to the upcoming Coco as the Director of Photography for Lighting.
As Director of Photography for Lighting, Danielle is responsible for the placement of icons of light in a virtual three-dimensional space. Pixar builds universes, Danielle lights those worlds, and we, the audience, see their cinematic screen projections: underwater ribbons of light for a clownfish to dart through, the ineffably translucency of Parisian fruits, stirring atmospheric canvasses of one robot’s epic.
Immediately following our conversation, Danielle has to run to a daily review session. Even though she’s been on Coco for four years counting, she can’t escape the overwhelming moments of, “Oh… We’re doing something really important here. [That feeling] happened the other day, and I got teary-eyed. ‘Oh. This is really important.’”
When I ask Danielle the biggest challenge faced during Coco, she immediately responds, “There’s two worlds in Coco, Land of the Living and Land of the Dead. The biggest design challenge is figuring out what that world is going to look like. In Monsters Inc., you’re making a whole city but you’re monster-izing it. […] In Inside Out and with the Land of the Dead in Coco, it’s less obvious. You don’t really want to make the place with your ancestors look like the same old place you live now but just skeletonized.” Pixar films demand environments to hold their own against the characters. “You have to make it grand and wonderful and fun and magical! [..] [The Land of the Dead] serves as this backdrop for our main character Miguel to go off on this crazy adventure where he learns about his family and chases his dreams.”
“We wanted it to be big and grand,” Danielle pauses, “which in computers translates to really, really hard.”
Considering the new territory covered by Coco, the film required an exceptional visual identity. The team watched stage shows as compositional treatments to guide their fine-tuning of light to complement Coco’s musical numbers. Danielle gives me examples of knowing lighting’s versatility and restraint: light that is utilitarian in one scene needs to emulate rock-n-roll glamour in another according to the demands of storytelling. At one point Danielle asks me rhetorically, “How would stage lighting in 1920s Mexico be different from current times… and how would they do that in the Land of the Dead?”
Further, as part of their visual development for the film’s look, the Coco team embarked on research trips to the historic town of Guanajuato, Mexico. “You never know early on what’s going to become the biggest things for a film, but [these trips] ended up being the biggest touchstone for the Land of the Dead,” she explains.
It’s no wonder Guanajuato conjured up such spectacular vistas. Guanajuato, with its adjacent mines, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features subterranean streets. “Guanajuato has these hills around the town,” Danielle reflects. “There’s buildings at the sides that are these vibrant, beautiful colors, and they’re stacked architecturally with mixed time periods. There’s tunnels underneath, because it was this old silver mining town. There’s narrow walkways up through between the buildings. It’s such a neat place where it felt a tiny bit European, but was very clearly Mexico.”
“We took a million photos; it was so inspiring, and we kept referencing those photos.”
Travel and photography go hand-in-hand for Danielle as a manipulator of light. “In computer animation, we create the whole world. We can make any world we want, we can bend the the laws of physics. To have complete control is actually a problem sometimes.” While observing light through photography informs Danielle’s decision-making in the virtual world, it also affords her a reprieve from editing, a task she says can be “exhausting.” “I can nitpick an image to death, so it’s almost like my vacation to go out with a camera and capture existing light.”
Travel, too, is part of a larger constellation of Danielle’s lifestyle. “I think traveling and seeing different people, different places, and different design aesthetics is a major influence on me, and how you not only approach different visuals, but how you live your life thinking of the bigger world out there.”
However, Danielle’s alchemy of art and science to drive narrative existed prior to her joining Pixar. Her interest in repurposing math, science, and code for storytelling started when she was young. She tells me in fourth grade, she would program horses to run across the screen. It would take switching to Computer Science from Mechanical Engineering at Harvard for her to fully uncover her passion for computer animation.
“At that time [1994, she estimates], there wasn’t a lot of computer animation and what was there wasn’t accessible. My professor one day puts a VHS tape and plays the old Pixar films from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I knew about special effects and maybe a couple of commercials on TV… and I watched those short films and was blown away. Wait, you’re telling me all this math and science and programming I’m learning, I can do that with it? I have to do that!”
And did that, she would despite the barriers of entry. “There was no clear path on how to do it, there was nobody doing it that was visible in any way. I didn’t even know what company,” she admits. Then, her senior year, TOY STORY came out. It was her ah-ha moment. “Someone is making a feature film. There is a group of people working on this film. There is clearly a company,” she announces earnestly, sitting in the cafeteria of said company.
After joining a graphics group with Professor Joe Marks, the same teacher who introduced her to Pixar shorts, she followed with independent studies and a Visual and Environmental Studies Animation course. Seven months after graduating, began work on in an entry level technical position on A BUG’S LIFE at Pixar. “There was no clear path, so I couldn’t feel beaten down. It was wandering through the woods trying to find the right thing, so I kept pursuing the things I was interested in and narrowing it down, until I had this epiphany of, ‘That’s what I want to do!,’ and I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to work really hard trying to do it.”
When it comes to pursuing the industry now, Danielle declares, “It’s a completely different world.” She directs prospective animators to the Pixar Undergraduate Program, a 10 week program whereby interns complete different rotations per week. PUP interns culminate the 10 weeks with their own project with their own advisor whose own technical experiences align with the aims of the project.
Although it’s become much easier to study Computer Animation in school, Danielle describes that those who succeed in courting Pixar remain exceptional. “It really shows if you’re super passionate, because you’re not just doing what other people are doing on assignments. This one applicant, her assignment was heads and shoulders above everyone else when we went to recruit. ‘I was up three nights doing this, and I don’t know if it’s any good.’” She recalls her astonished reaction to the final project: “This is amazing. You have to come work at Pixar! It was so awesome, that stuff shines through.” Her advice now boils down to, “If you’re passionate about it, then go full force. That always comes through.”
Outside of Pixar, Danielle mentors with various groups to get girls interested in STEM, including Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering women in computer science. It seems only intuitive that someone who was scolded from a childhood pursuit would dedicate her efforts to outreach increasing agency and visibility. She explains sincerely, “It impacts how I live my life in a better way, bringing good things to people. I remember what it’s like to be a teenager and having all these options available and open to you, and also the chaos and craziness in which way to go with life.”
To resolve the aspirations of her seven-year-old self though, Danielle happily confides that she dabbles in all sorts of artistic ventures now—drawing and sculpture as mainstays in addition to her photo trips. When I press her on whether she has any ambitions to see her personal projects develop into larger titles, she responds, “When you have all these amazing Pixar films with all these resources where you can build these ridiculous worlds, sometimes it’s more fun to revel in that and be a part of that.”
For Danielle, her profession and activism are immense duties to uphold. On the inordinate staying power and canonical status of Pixar in the lexicon of most of our childhoods, she confesses, “Seeing the impact Pixar movies have had on people makes you remember how important your job is. ‘I have to work really hard again today,’ you get into the grind of things… and then you go, no, woah, this is really important.”
Things couldn’t be any more different with Coco, which is slated for a November release in the US. Knowing how intense the anticipation is to finally reveal years of hard work to a public audience, I ask if there’s any scene Danielle has in mind when it plays for viewers. She can’t help replying with an infectious energy, “That’s the glory of this movie! There’s lots of moments like that. This is such a movie about family and the people you know, but also the people you’ve never met that came before you and learning all the little gifts they gave you coming down through the years. I can’t wait to see how audiences react to those.”
Me neither, Danielle!
About the Illustrator
Susan Bin is a freelance artist who graduated in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard College in 2016 after working at Dreamworks Animation and Legendary Entertainment. She’s had the opportunity to contribute illustrations to Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. When she’s not selling her art at conventions or traveling, she’s busy working on her original comics and projects. You can follow her art and trip adventures on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her visual development portfolio here.