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How ‘Lightyear’ Took Pixar Into the Uncharted Space of IMAX

Working in IMAX was quite complicated for Pixar, requiring a new way of handling shot composition and editorial. But "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" was a great inspiration.

Lightyear Pixar

“Lightyear”

Disney/Pixar

Animation.

Pixar’s return to movie theaters represents an additional milestone for the animation powerhouse: “Lightyear” is the studio’s first film shot in IMAX. (A two-week “Lightyear” run begins in IMAX theaters this weekend.) It’s a theatrical spectacle befitting the vision of director Angus MacLane, who pictured the Buzz Lightyear origin story as a ’70s blockbuster movie that charged the imagination of “Toy Story” kid Andy “the way ‘Star Wars’ got me excited.”

In “Lightyear,” fearless Space Ranger Buzz (Chris Evans) strands his Star Command crew on an uncharted planet. The film contains 30 minutes of IMAX animation, thanks to Pixar developing a virtual IMAX camera system (including a large sensor equivalent to 65mm and spherical lenses) to shoot the sequences at full frame 1.43:1. Meanwhile, the rest of the movie was simultaneously shot in virtual anamorphic 2.39:1 by “center cropping” the image. This widescreen presentation emulates the way ’70s and ’80s sci-fi movies were shot and the way most moviegoers will experience “Lightyear.”

“IMAX is a really wonderful storytelling tool,” MacLane said. “The exciting thing is that it’s very theatrical, which was very important to us because of the nature of the film being such a big sci-fi movie. And one of the most fun things we had was coming up with how the transitions would be seamless… to give it that feeling of scope or expanded scope. And beyond that, the way that more information is on screen and making sure it still felt like it was part of our movie. It was fun trial and error.

Working with IMAX was quite complicated for Pixar, requiring a new way of handling the workflow for shot composition, editorial, and sound consideration. “The guiding principle was immersive, not informational,” said Jeremy Lasky, director of photography for camera. “All the information needed to fit in the 2.39 format, but we don’t want people moving their head to follow everything, so we wanted all that information to be viewed tight, and then all the top and bottom is just peripheral.”

Lightyear Pixar

“Lightyear”

Disney/Pixar

But that meant being able to view large head shots of Buzz in the spaceship cockpit without experiencing eye strain, or being able to follow the action without cutting off the other characters in a sequence. “We were very careful in choosing which scenes would be in IMAX based on how much it would add to the experience,” added Lasky. “We do a lot of matte opening and closing in our IMAX shots, or at least to get in and out in some cases. Sometimes it’s a hard cut but we’re animating that window to pull you in or give it more of a seamless cut between formats.”

Pixar consulted with IMAX about the tech (including how sound affects the speaker set up as a result of its proprietary mastering) and how audiences look at the IMAX screen for the immersive experience. In addition, “Lightyear” editor Tony Greenberg consulted with Adam Gerstel — who edited the 2019 re-imagining of “The Lion King,” which also played in IMAX — about cutting in the format. “How do you handle all of this data?,” said Lasky. “Are you cutting in two different formats? Are you doing it once and dealing with the IMAX part of it later? We initially took the 2.39 as the version that we would track, and there were versions of the layout in the animation that were opened up to 1.43 for those sequences that we did in IMAX.”

Unfortunately, Greenberg couldn’t view 1.43 on his Avid, so he had to settle for 1.78 and higher res screenings in the Pixar  screening room. For the full IMAX 1.43, they screened at the AMC Metreon IMAX theater in San Francisco when they had a large collection of footage to review.

Lightyear Pixar

“Lightyear”

Disney/Pixar

Not surprisingly, the best IMAX frame of reference for MacLane was “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” the live-action debut from fellow Pixar director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles” franchise, “Ratatouille”). “Definitely, the opening to the Burj Khalifa scene [where Tom Cruise walks on the side of the building] is the gold standard as far as danger and insanity,” MacLane said. “And it was neat because the style of it felt like Brad and to see what you could do with it in IMAX was exciting.”

As with “Ghost Protocol,” the first IMAX sequence of “Lightyear” is a spectacular set piece: The introduction of Buzz and crew and their “Turnip” ship, followed by their crash landing on the planet. “From there, we go down to 2.39 for a while and open up to IMAX again when Buzz goes on his first mission with his first fuel crystal,” Lasky said. “He pushes the launch and we cut to a wide where he rockets away from us, but then we open up to IMAX in that shot, revealing all this space with Buzz. We stay in IMAX until the landing after the failed mission.”

The visual aesthetics, of course, are very different between anamorphic widescreen and IMAX. With the former, you get all the vintage characteristics of sci-fi with lens flare, distortion, and very wide angle perspective. By contrast, the higher res 65mm format of IMAX gives you added depth and height, and the background is a little closer without distortion. One of the advantages of the hyper speed cylindrical tunneling effect was that it actually looked more organic as well as immersive in IMAX.

Lightyear Pixar

“Lightyear”

Disney/Pixar

Another advantage in IMAX was all the instrument panel insert shots in the cockpit. “They are very different… the world feels tactile, they’re living in it,” Lasky said. Pixar even shot the speeding ships like models on a virtual gimbal the way “Star Wars” was done by ILM. “When you see it all together and have a star field moving toward you, you can dial in whatever visual look you want,” he said.

While most of the third-act action was shot in IMAX, with Buzz and his newbie sidekicks battling alien robot Zurg (voiced by James Brolin) and his minions, there’s a tense space walk that’s visually breathtaking in the large format. “I think it’s one of our best moments,” Lasky said. “We transition to IMAX as the camera goes over Izzy’s head and looks down. Then, we’re expanding to 1.43 as she moves from the airlock into space, and that stays in IMAX with a bit of Buzz and Zurg in the middle of that, until she gets to the airlock on the opposite side. It’s such a punch to put the audience in her head with IMAX like that.”

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