With “Finding Dory,” Pixar created quite a RUKUS. That’s the acronym for the three biggest benchmarks in rendering, lighting and application management, which accounted for water and glass looking so rich in Pixar’s newest animated offering, along with the ability to animate Hank (Ed O’Neill), the complex octopus.
But, as always, according to Ed Catmull — unofficially the Yoda of Pixar, officially the president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios — it remains a culture of gradual change to further better storytelling and aesthetics.
“The approach we still take is that we systematically keep trying to improve something every single film. We have to evolve, we have to change, and in order to do that, we have to initiate the change,” Catmull emphasized.
At Pixar, there’s a development team that works independently of production on a four to eight-year cycle (Presto, the current animation software, took eight years to implement), as well as an R&D group that develops both short-term and long-term projects, but without a fixed timetable and with an expected success rate of 25%.
“We’ll fund a project even if I’m skeptical because I’d rather be proven wrong by somebody on the inside than by somebody on the outside,” Catmull said.
On “Dory,” the biggest innovation was RenderMan RIS: A new and more efficient rendering paradigm for global illumination that’s particularly well-suited to water and glass. “What it let us do was to move forward with more realistic light simulation and user interactivity,” Catmull added.
Pixar also integrated Katana (The Foundry’s collaborative lighting and look development tool) into Renderman, which allows live rendering opportunities for the animator.
And the studio fully integrated Universal Scene Description (USD), the coordination tool for creating and sampling graphics applications among various departments. Thus, the combination of all three formed RUKUS.
Pixar will even release USD at the SIGGRAPH conference in Anaheim (July 24-28). “As a small industry, sometimes you just want to give things away because we want the whole industry to be healthy,” Catmull asserted.
But without a doubt, Hank the octopus — a new character in the Pixar world — would not have been possible 13 years ago on “Finding Nemo.” He’s anarchy in motion, yet designed to fit in elegantly into the world of “Dory.”
There were so many parts, in fact, that Pixar had to break him apart: The art department came up with the overall aesthetic, simulation took on the suckers and character animation tackled the webbing between the legs and how that interacts with the face.
“It’s a building body of expertise in terms of the animators and the technical people, and we gain insight for the future,” Catmull continued.
The same holds true for the sweet “Piper” short about a baby sandpiper afraid of the water, initiated as a tech project in photorealism by animator Alan Barillaro (“Wall-E”) and overseen by “Finding Dory” director Andrew Stanton.
“The way the birds moved and the way the lighting worked it had this feeling of watching real birds,”Catmull suggested. “I don’t think most of our films should be realistic, but you want that as an artistic possibility. Then the artist can take the realism of the world and push it in ways that we can connect with.”
While Catmull’s excited about the new generation of graphics chips at ATI and NVIDIA for augmented and virtual reality and the spillover improvements for animation, he has a bigger hope for the next decade.
“That the storytelling can be done with a smaller group of people– let’s say under 100 — which has more ownership in the production,” he said. “In order to make that happen, the technical tools, the speed, all need to change fairly dramatically. What’s happening now is that technical change is a continual, ongoing process and it’s an energizing one. We are explicitly in an environment where we are driving change at every level (story, technology, artistic looks).”
“Finding Dory” is currently in theaters.