The first Meetings with Remarkable Men and Women event of the 2020-21 school year certainly lived up to its name. As a Supervising Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studios, Danielle Feinberg uses technology to create art. She worked her way up to the role of Director of Photography for Lighting for Academy Award®-winning films including Wall•E, Brave, and Coco. During her presentation, Danielle discussed how she uses her technical experience and science skills to push boundaries in filmmaking. She brilliantly shined a light on the world of animation and opened our eyes to how the littlest detail creates worlds beyond the imagination.
Meet Danielle Feinberg
Art and science have always been a part of Danielle’s life. Raised with artistic parents, Danielle could escape to her basement full of art supplies to work on projects. She recalled that “the first coding I did was creating art”—she was nine when she used a robotic logo turtle to create spirograph-like images. Little did she know that an animated robot would have such an impact later in life.
Flash forward to her college days at Harvard University. Danielle originally thought she would be a mechanical engineer, but a computer science class inspired her pursuit of a computer science degree. This led to a computer graphics class which sparked what she called a “magic moment.”
“All the math, science, and code I’d been learning…could come together to create worlds and characters and tell stories that I had a reaction to and that felt so powerful,” she told us. This is when she realized what she wanted to do with her life.
Making the Magic Happen
Now that she had a life goal, Danielle needed to get creative with how to get there. She knew she wanted to work at Pixar, so she had to “get scrappy and cobble together experiences” to make it happen. With the help of caffeine and sugar, Danielle propelled herself through computer programming classes. Even as one of the few women in her field at the time, she “dug deep to persevere” through all of the challenges and “rejected the idea of can’t do it” in order to accomplish her goals. Danielle credits the support of her parents and the ability to stay true to her “authentic self” with finding the strength to power through.
Building a Bridge
Armed with determination, a love of art, and the computer programming experience she worked hard to gain, Danielle was finally able to write code that showed up in some of our favorite movies. It all started with something as simple as coding leaves to blow in the wind in a background scene of Monsters, Inc. She showed us how lighting dramatically changed the mood and drew in the audience’s eye for scenes in Wall•E. Art and technology collided to code curves in landscape details and transport audiences to the Scottish Highlands in Brave. Elements of physics turned particles into petals that transferred random angular velocities into a bridge to the Land of the Dead in Coco.
When the director of Coco told the team to “create a world like no one has seen before,” the task seemed vague and daunting. However, all it took was the creativity of the art department, research trips to Mexico, and the technical expertise of digital effects artists to code details so subtle you can’t tell it’s there, but it would be harder to believe in the world without it.
“With little twists of nobs in the code, we can get to all different kinds of settings.” It’s amazing how altering effects like wind, light, erosion, and curves can change an entire scene. Danielle also illustrated how the teams used the same base character model for several movies simply by altering color and style—and even making them glow.
Beyond the Technical
Building a believable world takes more than technical detail. It needs subtle touches you’re never meant to see, hours upon hours of rendering and optimization, and most importantly, it needs heart. For an animated film, emotion may be emitted through the dialogue, but it’s also in the lighting. Danielle demonstrated how this was accomplished by playing with artistic elements in Wall•E’s eyes in order to bring him to life. Adding hidden Easter eggs in scenes is a lot of fun too.
After it’s all said and done, Danielle shared that her favorite part of movie-making is “collectively working with others” to tell stories that contribute to people feeling recognized. While she’s currently working from home to make movie magic, she still has to stay in touch with the team to cohesively code these worlds. As they work to combine art and technology to build believable characters and settings, she urges us all to “combine your scrappy cleverness with heart and meaning and create a world that no one has ever seen before.”