VFX Futures: How all those sparks in Pixar’s ‘Lightyear’ were created

Pixar effects supervisor Bill Watral discusses sparks, light speed and more.

This week on VFX Futures, Ian Failes from befores & afters chats to Pixar effects supervisor Bill Watral about Lightyear. We cover everything from light speed, to ship exhausts to the huge amount of sparks required on the film (yes, there’s A LOT of sparks. A LOT.). We also dive into the tools of the trade, including how Pixar has been using Houdini and its own proprietary tools along with RenderMan in effects work. Below, check out a fun breakdown of a light speed scene from the movie.

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PROGRESSION IMAGE 1 of 7: STORY – To create a sequence in Disney and Pixar’s “LIGHTYEAR,” one of the early steps in the production pipeline is building storyboards. Artists sketch the key beats in a sequence, suggesting possible set positioning, camera angles and character poses. This sequence is called “First Mission” and this specific storyboard was drawn by Story Supervisor Dean Kelly. The story team delivered 2,472 storyboards in various passes for this sequence and a total of 133,827 storyboards were delivered for the entire film. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
PROGRESSION IMAGE 2 of 7: ART – Once the storyline for a sequence is determined, concept art is created by the Production Designer and Art department to determine the look and feel of the film. This concept art piece was created by Production Designer Tim Evatt, and showcases the exploration of color and design for the spaceships, space environment, and look of lightspeed, including the scale and attention to detail within this fast-paced sequence in the film. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
PROGRESSION IMAGE 3 of 7: PREVIS – During the Previs stage, multiple departments including Art, Sets, Characters, Layout, Editorial, Animation, Shading, Simulation/Tailoring, FX, and Lighting collaborate on the visual and technical development of the entire sequence. Working with early-stage assets allowed the film production teams to mock up ideas and solve problems as though they were all together on a live-action set. Everyone was able to propose creative ideas as well as plan for the technical execution of the sequence. On “LIGHTYEAR,” this collaboration, which started in the earliest stages of production and continued through the end, was a key element to achieving the film’s unique look. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
PROGRESSION IMAGE 4 of 7: LAYOUT – Using Previs as a jumping off point, the Layout team establishes the staging of each scene as well as the composition and camera movement of every shot. The Layout team works closely with the director and film editor to determine the sequencing and timing of shots to most effectively tell the story. In collaboration with the other teams, the layout reels form a visual template for how the final film will look and feel in CG. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
PROGRESSION IMAGE 5 of 7: ANIMATION – To create a sequence in “LIGHTYEAR,” the animation team worked with the suggested layout and recorded dialogue to create the physical and emotional character performances. This moment shows Buzz’s determination and the high stakes to complete the mission in this adrenaline-driven sequence of the film. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
PROGRESSION IMAGE 6 of 7: FX – The FX department adds an array of elements to make the world feel physical as well as to provide the complex visuals needed for specific story points. FX can simulate rain, fire, mud and other elements, or add dust, smoke or electricity to an environment to create a mood or ground characters within a scene. For unique story moments, FX can invent visuals, like the hyperspeed effect or invisibility cloaks seen in “LIGHTYEAR”. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
PROGRESSION IMAGE 7 of 7: LIGHTING AND FINAL IMAGE – The Lighting department helps to integrate all of the elements – characters, sets, effects, etc. – into a final, fully visually realized image. The Lighting process involves placing virtual light sources into the scene to illuminate the characters and the set. Technical artists place the lights to draw the audience’s eye to story points and to create a specific mood. The lit images are then rendered at high resolution. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

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