Interview: Our exclusive with Pixar’s Sharon Calahan

With Inside Out‘s Best Animated Feature win at the Oscars behind us and the release of Finding Dory creeping up on us, it’s a good time to be a Pixar fan.

We caught up with Sharon Calahan, one of the studios most prolific cinematographers and talked about her work, The Good Dinosaur and the culture of a company like Pixar.

Fergus: How do you feel working exclusively in animation has shaped your approach to working in cinematography?

Sharon: I think that because the tools are very different, it helps me to focus on the end result; the thinking and design that will create the final look.  We aren’t trying to create realism, or to match live-action, but there is a lot to learn from live-action and how they solve visual problems and create beauty.

Congratulations on being recently admitted into the American Society of Photographers. You were the first member to be elected solely based on work in animation, do you see this as a testament to the outstanding quality of your work or a broader shift in the mindset of the society?

I would like to think that it is the result of a little of both. We are definitely in an era where lines are starting to get blurry. Many live-action DPs are venturing into the realm of CG filmmaking, the film Gravity is a great example. This broadens the understanding of what it takes to create images in the computer.

The animation in The Good Dinosaur has been described as some of the best in the company’s history… “photo real landscapes” often being used. How do you feel about the film and what’s the reaction to it been like from both Pixar fans and colleagues?

I am very proud of the film and what we were able to achieve.  I wouldn’t describe the film as photo-real because it doesn’t look photo-real to me, I think it looks more painterly, but certainly the level of detail in the film and the natural palette tend to give it a level of believability that was perhaps pushed further than we have done before.

The Good Dinosaur

You’ve talked before about the distinction between the image our eyes see and the image a camera can capture­ is there a moment in The Good Dinosaur that where this idea came into play?

Since it is an exterior film, almost any shot would be a good example. In a bright sunshine shot, the eye can see into both the highlights and the shadows, whereas a standard camera has a fixed range of values that expose well. Also your eyes can see color in under-exposed and over-exposed areas in a more vivid way.  The eye can see color complexities that are difficult to capture well in a camera either because of the inherent limitations of the emulsion or the sensor on the camera. In The Good Dinosaur, I wasn’t trying to mimic how a particular filmstock or camera would capture the scene, but how it feels when you look at something, this might be why people call it photo-real, because there is an enhanced reality, but it isn’t from the “photo” part.

You’ve worked with Pixar for over 20 years, can you say anything about how the culture of the company has changed over time? What project was the most memorable for you?

In a lot of significant ways, the studio has changed very little; often I’m surprised how little. I think we have matured and learned a lot, but we feel we still have much to learn.  It would be difficult for me to choose one film. They all stand out to me in different ways, but if I did have to choose one to be the most memorable it would probably be Toy Story. It was thrilling to be a part of that history.

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As a cinematographer did you find yourself drawn more towards the stories set in an approximation of reality or the more fantastical ones?

I appreciate all styles, but I think my grounding as a representational painter makes me more comfortable in that realm.

Can you describe this term “painterly reality” and how it guided your approach to the cinematography in The Good Dinosaur?

The lighting and colors are pushed in a direction of how I would paint them. The exposure ranges do not emulate photography; and I’m not layering in photographic elements such as lens distortion and other effects that lend a more photographic look. The scenes are structured toward reduction to essential shapes and values like a landscape painter would approach the shot.

Pixar has an incredibly strong backlog. Do you ever feel like daunted by the idea that whatever you’re working on currently might not surpass what’s come before?

Absolutely, but that fear is also a nice motivator, to always try to break new ground and to raise the bar to a new level of artistry and quality.

Which of Pixar’s earlier films do you feel, as a cinematographer, has aged best?

Of my own films, I re-watched Ratatouille recently and felt that it help up better than I was expecting. I feel that WALL•E holds its age well. We have improved our visual craftsmanship since the original Toy Story but I am always so pleased to see how well the story still holds up after 20 years.

Wall-E

And as a Pixar fan, which film is your favourite and why?

That is a tough one, I like all of them for different reasons, but I’m partial to Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.

Do you feel like your job is easier or harder than it was a decade ago?

It doesn’t feel like it ever gets easier, but hopefully we work smarter and make better choices.

What is the biggest thing you’ve learned since writing “Storytelling Through Lighting”? After decades of working in this field, do you still feel like you have room to improve your craft?

Yes, the longer I create images the more I feel there is to learn about creating images. I think that is what really drives me and why I keep doing it.

The Good Dinosaur releases on DVD and Blu-ray on the 11th of May.