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Pixar’s Fake Real Cameras

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2019

Pixar is always trying to push the envelope of animation and filmmaking, going beyond what they’ve done before. For the studio’s latest release, Toy Story 4, the filmmakers worked to inject as much reality into the animation as possible and to make it feel like a live-action movie shot with real cameras using familiar lenses and standard techniques. In the latest episode of Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak shares how they did that:

As I learned when I visited Pixar this summer,1 all of the virtual cameras and lenses they use in their 3D software to “shoot” scenes are based on real cameras and lenses. As the first part of the video shows, when they want two things to be in focus at the same time, they use a lens with a split focus diopter. You can tell that’s what they’re doing because you can see the artifacts on the screen — the blurring, the line marking the diopter transition point — just as you would in a live-action film.

They’re doing a similar thing by capturing the movement of actual cameras and then importing the motion into their software:

To get the motion just right for the baby carriage scene in the antique store for TS4, they took an actual baby carriage, strapped a camera to it, plopped a Woody doll in it, and took it for a spin around campus. They took the video from that, motion-captured the bounce and sway of the carriage, and made it available as a setting in the software that they could apply to the virtual camera.

Now, this is a really interesting decision on Pixar’s part! Since their filmmaking is completely animated and digital, they can easily put any number of objects in focus in the same scene or simply erase the evidence that a diopter was used. But no, they keep it in because making something look like it was shot in the real world with real cameras helps the audience believe the action on the screen. Our brains have been conditioned by more than 100 years of cinema to understand the visual language of movies, including how cameras move and lenses capture scenes. Harnessing that visual language helps Pixar’s filmmakers make the presentation of the action on the screen seem familiar rather than unrealistic.

  1. Q: How do you know when someone has recently visited Pixar?

    A: Oh don’t worry, they’ll tell you.