Following the release of Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’, Eleanor Parkyn interviewed former Cardiff University student Paul Oakley who has been working as a Lighting Technical Director at Pixar for the last 5 years.
How did you end up working for Pixar?
I did my fine art degree and then I went travelling for a long time and met someone who worked in film and they suggested I pursue a career in visual effects. I started off by getting a job as a runner, making tea and coffee for the film Gladiator, and then I trained myself up. I ended up doing ten years of visual effects for films like Harry Potter and Avatar, and I was working in places like London and Toronto. My producer on Avatar at the time introduced me to a recruiter for Pixar and I was flown out for an interview and that was that!
Which Pixar films have you worked on?
I’ve worked on everything we’ve made at Pixar since I got here 5 years ago, so Brave, Monsters University, Cars 2, Blue Umbrella, Inside Out and Lava.
What does your job involve?
I work directly underneath the director of photography, and they specialise in lighting and the aesthetic look of the film. I specialise in the lighting department, which is responsible for creating the aesthetic for the film. The art department creates the overall visual elements of the film and then the lighting department takes those and produces them in CG.
You’ve been working on the latest film, Inside Out, how long did it take you to complete your work on that?
There are different crews of people for the film that are involved at different times throughout the production of the film. For myself I was working on it for 6 months, but a director of photography can be working on it for around two years. There is a lot of preparation that goes into the final product.
What is the process of making the film for you?
The director writes the film, the storyboards are made and then it is blocked out in animation and then there is modelling and set design. When it comes to me, it’ll be part animated, modelled and created and 3D shading has to be added. I am responsible for taking something that is not lit, in a CG sense, for example it won’t have a time of day or mood or an atmosphere and I’ll then proceed to add the light. It’s an interesting concept, it’s like you have something that is flatly coloured, without any kind of idea of a mood or time and then I put this 3D light onto surfaces to make it look like its part of that particular time of day or atmosphere. Lighting in CG terms is a very abstract concept, it’s like walking into a room where all the lights are off and you know the set exists there and you know everything is coloured but you can’t really see anything until the light has been turned on, and that’s what I do.
What was your favourite part of this film to work on?
I did a whole bunch of different sequences, but a fun sequence I did was the ‘disco dancing party unicorn’ sequence and that was fun to do. That was quite interesting because it touches people and makes them laugh. But I also did the end of the film, a scene between Joy and Sadness, and there is a multitude of different emotions and each one has its place. It was an incredibly important moment in the film, and I think it was quite beautiful. So that I think was my favourite part to work on.
Pixar films are commonly thought of as children’s films, but many critics have argued that Inside Out is more adult orientated, what do you think about that?
Something I think Pixar does well is that they create an amazing world and a cohesive story that really enables you to get past the general fluff of it being a CG children’s cartoon. It’s something that is hard to convey in CG feature films and I think it’s what separates Pixar from the rest. The film gets to touch people, no matter whether they are adults, or small children. You can go and see the film, and no matter who you are you will take something really great away from it. It transcends just being a cartoon or a CG feature film and it becomes art.
Inside Out is a very thought provoking film, have you learnt anything during the making of the film about your own emotions?
It is incredibly thought provoking. When I saw it in the board stages, when it wasn’t even animated yet, I came away thinking ‘when I get home tonight I have to be a better father, or I have to at least understand my children for being their own people and their personalities and really make the best of that’. It made me want to be a better person, and that’s a pretty powerful thing to take from it.
What do you think is the secret of this film’s success, in comparison to other Pixar films?
It’s an incredibly complex subject that has been dealt with and that the studio has tried to convey. They convey it in an eloquent but very simplistic fashion that I think is cohesive and direct to the point. Trying to convey such a complex message in such a simplistic way is really, really difficult and I think that is one of the great things about it.
A lot of people have found the film very emotional, where there any parts you cried at when you first saw the film?
I think the first time, when some of her happy memories become tinged with sadness, I think then I started to shed a bit of a tear; maybe because it reminds me of times when I wasn’t the best person I could be. But what is kind of cool about that is the end, because it gives you the understanding that all the emotions have a place within you and help the other emotions to build and develop, and it made me feel alright in the end!
Who would you say is your favourite emotion or character from the film?
I like the whimsy of Bing Bong, I know he’s not an emotion, but I like him because I’m kind of creative and I like his abstract nature. There is a soft toy of Bing Bong available and his tummy smells like candyfloss, it’s great! If I had to pick my favourite emotion it would be Joy. All of my children like Sadness though, I guess because she’s so hilarious.
What has working at Pixar been like throughout the making of Inside Out?
I came into work one morning and the entire atrium was filled with giant inflatable coloured balloons. The balloons were probably about eight foot tall, and in red, blue, yellow, purple and green; the colours of the emotions from the film. There were about 60 of them and they were everywhere, and that bought a real smile to my face, it was quite a joyful moment.
Was there any particular reason for this?
No, that’s just kind of what Pixar does! Pixar does anything it feels like, whenever it feels like it wants to do it.
I heard you also worked on the short film accompanying Inside Out, Lava, can you tell me about that?
Yeah, I did a time lapse sequence for it and that was interesting to make. James Murphy (Head animator for Pixar) who wrote and directed Lava spends a lot of time in Hawaii and I think it was inspired by his love of the islands, as well as the cultural history and music of Hawaii. So he wrote this romantic piece about it. Like Inside Out that was very emotional as well. I think the emotion of Pixar films is what separates us from the rest of the pack; it’s our ability to create an entertaining story but also cut to the matter and have this emotional core.
In Inside Out we see inside people’s minds and that some people have certain emotions ruling them, like for Riley it’s Joy, which emotion would you say is in control in your life?
I think it depends in what stage of life you ask that question, now that I’m a father it’s all kind of changed. But I think I’m quite playful so I guess if I chose, I would be a sort of mixture between Joy and Bing Bong. Or at least I try to be!
At the end of the film we see the installation of the new emotions control panel with the addition of the ‘puberty’ button, is this a hint at the potential of a sequel?
You know, I think that’s just Pete Docter (Director of Inside Out) being incredibly funny. He’s just a funny guy, there are so many gags throughout the film that I think are just hilarious.
Can you tell us about any future projects you’re going to be working on?
I’m working on Finding Dory at the moment, but I can’t reveal any more than that. I imagine you can probably guess that it’s underwater and involves fish!
How has Cardiff University helped you to get where you are today?
My first introduction to CG and 3D was when I did my fine art degree, and there was one lecturer, called Tom Piper, who specialised in print making and he introduced me to 3D and without him I probably would not have gotten into CG and I would love to thank him for that.