Technology Behind Animation: Tools and Tips from Pixar

If you are interested in the technology behind animation, we have gathered together tips and tools that Pixar Animation Studios use for their animated movies. Check it out!

Working on the animation is quite a complex process. Surely, you can find plenty of articles and videos about working on animation and hoe to get your skills better, but there are some professional studios that share their experience and knowledge of the area with other artists. Pixar Animation Studios is quite known in the animation industry since they are the creators of many famous animated movies that we all know and love. 

Pixar Animation Studios is the daughter company of Walt Disney Company that focuses on cinematic animation. Studios work primarily in their own software, Renderman, and all the ideas and ideas are created by Pixar only.  Studios' animators give talks on different conferences dedicated to 3D graphics and animation, and their shared knowledge of the area can be really valuable for beginners and experienced artists. In this case, we suggest you take a look at the talks of representatives of Pixar Animation Studios. 

In this article, you will find out useful tips from Pixar's animators and the tools they use that can help you enhance your animation workflow and projects. 

  • Testing

Guilherme Jacinto, Pixar Animator. 

He has worked on several Pixar projects, such as Up, Toy Story 3, Brave, Monsters University, Coco, and Incredibles 2.

In this talk, Guilherme Jacinto shared how the team worked on the animation of the facial expression of skeletons, taking into account the shape language of the film. The biggest challenge in the production was working on facial expressions since there is no facial features, muscles, or skin. In the presentation, Guilherme showed their solution to this problem by making some excuses and adding extra details, such as lips, eyes, and reshaping the eye sockets, so it could visually look like eyebrows and can be used for giving a better and clearer expression.

During the production, animators of Coco had to work with angles of the lips corner. There are a set of different angles that give off different emotions. Working precisely on it and knowing geometry was essential. 

The key part of the production was testing. Since the characters are quite different from the usual look of them, the team had to try various versions of how their movements would look like.  This workflow did help Coco's animators achieve the desired look, didn't it?

  •  Full Access During the Production 

Andrew Butts, Software Engineer at Pixar Studio Team. 

Andrew was a part of the production team of Up, Brave, Ratatouille films.

Pixar always looks for innovation and further development of its software. In particular, you can spot the enhancement of their animation style in the Incredibles sequel.

The animation in these films looks quite traditional, and, in some moments, the hair and its motion are the way to tell a story. Do you remember how would the shocked look, or the wind, appear in old cartoons? Animators used the hair to express it. The same method works here.

This time, the production team has updated their workflow and used more sufficient software. The animators got access to full-fidelity hair at any time, and, what’s more important, they could do adjustments and see results right after adding or changing the feature. This access helps speed up the process and create a more realistic hair motion. You can see how the process looks like from the video above, where animators showcased their workflow. 

  • Time-Saving Tool: Renderman for Houdini Plugin

Wayne Wooten, Renderman developer. 

Wayne has been a part of the Pixar production team since 1998 and worked on the most popular and high-rated films of the studio.

At this year’s SIGGRAPH conference, Pixar presented the new version of Renderman and the new Renderman for Houdini plugin. 

Renderman is Pixar's rendering engine that is used in the production of all Pixar films. The engine has a good claim and was described as the standard in the visual effects production and is used broadly in the industry. The engine is available for the purchase on its website.

Houdini is a software built for modeling, rigging, VFX, animation, and look development. The software is mostly used for visualization. Check out these reels to see what it is capable of. 

Renderman 22 includes features that mainly speed up the process during production:

  • Direct Rendering APIs
  • New Ray Tracing Core
  • Improved Light Importance Sampling 
  • Particle Acceleration
  • Overhauled Curve Primitive

As for overall results, the first pixel appears 10x faster. The team managed to make the overall rendering time 2x faster with less memory required.

Pixar and Houdini have been collaborating on the software for a while, but the updated plugin has some major differences and enhancements. The plugin was completely rewritten and now is based on C++. It also uses direct rendering API  The idea of the update was to make the plugin simple and seamless. You can get the plugin on the Pixar website

The second part of the presentation is the demo of the updated version, so you can have a better understanding, what the updates are about.  

  • Real-Time 3D Visualization

Dirk van Gelder, Engineering Lead at Pixar. 

Dirk has been working in Pixar for more than 20 years and specializes in studios' software development. 

Talking about real-time production, Pixar has an open-source rendering plugin for USD Hydra that works in real-time. Hydra is a back-end program that is used for direct 3D visualization. 

As an example, this plugin was used in the production of Finding Dory. In the video, you can see how it actually works and what animators see in the process. The program is able to load thousands of meshes and millions of polygons within a few seconds. Sounds impressing, right?

You can get the plugin on GitHub.

  • Lighting with NVIDIA OptiX Engine

Jean-Daniel Nahmias, researcher: software research and development at Pixar

Pixar has implemented the NVIDIA OptiX engine. It's easier now to recreate the desired light. Instead of adding hundreds of lights, you can work with a dozen on to light up the whole scene.  The usage of NVIDIA Engine simplifies the control of lighting and adds ray-tracing technology to create the realism of it. You can adjust different types of lights with the tools and see the immediate result. 

The research project includes production assets, production pipeline from NVIDIA OptiX engine.

In the video, you will see the full lighting production of the scene in Katana combined with the engine and find out how to work effectively with interactive lighting and its refraction on different materials.

If you want to get into details of the production, don't miss out on this awesome guide on the animation production from Myles Leo. In the article, he shared his approach to it, including working on the look dev and shared 5 essential rules of animation. Check it out!

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