How Pixar's 'Real' Fake Cameras Make Their Movies Look So Realistic
You'd assume split diopters and anamorphic lenses are a live-action film thing. Just don't tell that to Pixar.
The Toy Story franchise has always been ahead of the curve in terms of innovation in animation, but Toy Story 4 is an absolute visual marvel. Toy Story 4 was able to achieve an aesthetic that looks entirely realistic and fantastical at the same time, a perfect combination considering that it's a film about toys that come to life and have to navigate a world not built for them.
Pixar took things like light behavior, character movement, and friggin' fur -- which looks utterly primitive in the first film, compared to the recent fourthquel (Spud has nothing on Antique Shop Cat) -- and pushed them further than anyone could have expected. Another thing Pixar incorporated into their latest film that next-levels their cinematic vision is the use of virtual cinema cameras and lenses.
Evan Puschak, also known as Nerdwriter, digs into Pixar's use of "real" fake cameras, lenses, and cinematic techniques in their latest films in the video below:
We write about Pixar as often as we can, but we usually cover their expert storytelling and character development. Very rarely do we ever discuss things like lighting or camera/lens choice in their films. The latter is worth mentioning, as it seems many yet to fully appreciate Pixar's brilliant cinematography and the advances therein, especially in Toy Story 4.
But as Puschak points out, Pixar DP Patrick Lin's camera and lens choices, virtual as they may be, are highly sophisticated. They are ones you'd expect to see (and have) in the most beloved and renowned of movies. In fact, Lin has gone to great lengths to mimic the real-life qualities and effects of real-life camera equipment, from high-end cinema glass to stabilizers.
Lin was interviewed for FMX's Professional Spotlight series in 2016, in which he explains what exactly he does as a DP for animated films. This video offers some real clues as to why he insists on making the cinematography in Pixar's films as true to life as possible. When asked if his cinematic approach changes between live-action and animation (around the 1:40 mark in the video below), he responded:
"I think it's exactly the same between a live-action shoot and computer animation in terms of the sensibility, because what our goal is is to tell a story visually, and the way to do it is exactly the same. How you set up a camera, what kind of lens you use, what kind of camera angle you use...it doesn't matter if it's live-action or an animated film, the technique is the same."
Now that we understand Lin's philosophy on how to shoot live-action and animated films, it actually makes talking about his stylistic choices a hell of a lot easier. It is really intriguing to hear that someone worked really hard to bring "real" fake cameras, lenses, and techniques into Pixar's animated universe. But, in the end, whether a film is live-action or animated, it's still a story being told visually — and low angles, shallow depth-of-field, and the Cooke look have the same impact on viewers regardless of how they were generated.
Here is a look at the different techniques and tools Lin used in Pixar films -- namely Inside Out and Toy Story 4 -- that made the films so visually iconic and go over what each of them communicates to viewers.
What are Split Diopters?
They are filters made with convex glass on one half and flat glass on the other. This makes one side nearsighted and the other farsighted, allowing you to focus on multiple planes so that the foreground and background are both completely in focus.
The Split Diopter Effect
What's the point of having foreground and background elements in focus at the same time? Let me answer that question with another question: Is that the way your eye naturally sees things?
No, and that's the main draw. Split diopters allow for an unnatural dual focus, which adds a little mystery and uncertainty to shots. Because it's an unfamiliar and unnatural way to see the world, it can be jarring and disorienting. It suggests to your audience that something's not quite right with the scene.
Split Diopters in Toy Story 4
Now that we understand the emotional and psychological effects split diopters can have on our brains, it makes the scene between Gabby and Forky all the more unnerving. In fact, it's a brilliant visual cue that foreshadows Gabby's true malevolence, turning her deceptively pastoral home in a small town antique shop into an evil layer full of danger and manipulation.
There are so many different types of camera movement. You've got dollies, cranes, tracking, orbits, pans, tilts, and just plain ol' static, and they all do different things to us emotionally and psychologically. We see these types of shots all the time in home movies and amateur videos, and the characteristic camera shake of these types of videos immediately recalls feelings of nostalgia and "realness".
That's what makes handheld shots unique. Not only does it reminds us of the home videos our parents took of our soccer games and Christmas mornings, there's also the fact that there isn't a big chunk of metal and plastic separating the camera from an operator's hand. Not to get all ooey-gooey poetry snob on you, but, in a way, it's the most human shot because of that.
In other words, because these shots aren't synthesized using lifeless machines that keep them steady, they're considered more "real". It's the human "error" of shakiness that delivers that
Lin's Unique Handheld Camera Capture Technique
Another live-action trope Lin brings into animation is camera movement. Unsatisfied with what now seems "basic" pans, tilts, dolly moves, and tracking shots, the DP took it a step further to incorporate the distinctive look of a handheld camera in films like Inside Out and The Blue Umbrella.
As Puschak shows in his video, Lin pioneered a camera capture technique that allowed him to create a realistic handheld look by tracking points on a shoulder-mounted camera stabilizer.
Handheld Cameras in Inside Out
Inside Out is a movie with two storylines -- one that focuses on Riley, the human child, reeling after her family moves to San Francisco -- and one that focuses on Joy, the leader of Riley's five personified emotions.
One way that Lin addresses the separation between these two worlds -- the real world that Riley lives in and the world inside Riley's head -- is by shooting them differently.
He uses "real-world' camera techniques like handheld camera movement during Riley's scenes to give the aesthetic a realistic touch while capturing Joy's fantastical emotional world in sweeping crane shots, static shots, and stabilized dollies, pans, and tilts.
Just look how differently stabilized the shots of Riley are compared to those of Joy and Sadness:
Lens choice is so important in part because they can have different impacts on your audience emotionally and psychologically.
This is usually described through the lens (pun intended) of focal length -- like how a wide-angle lens distorts reality or how a telephoto lens can make you feel uneasy because it compresses the foreground and background -- but different brands and models of lenses can also create an aesthetic that affects viewers on an emotional level.
Cine Lenses in Inside Out
As Puschak mentions in his video, Lin modeled the lenses used in Inside Out after real-life cinema lenses, namely the ARRI Zeiss Ultra Primes for Joy's world and Cooke S4 lenses for Riley's world.
Lin described this decision to Studio Daily:
“We created lens distortion curves in our virtual lenses for each. The Ultra Prime lenses have minimal lens distortion so we used those in the perfect imaginary inside world. The Cooke S4 lenses have an exaggerated distortion, so those imperfections go into the outside world.”
Anamorphic Lenses in Toy Story 4
One of Lin's coolest -- and most groundbreaking -- uses of virtual cine glass appears in Toy Story 4. The DP modeled his virtual lenses for the film after Cooke's anamorphic lenses. Doing this allowed him and his team to create the cinematic, larger-than-life scope that anamorphic can provide, complete with oval bokeh, horizontal lens flares, and shallow depth-of-field.
Pixar's success is arterial in structure. Their innovative animation technology, their marketing campaigns, even their clever use of real-life camera effects -- like the ones we've gone over in this article -- are all brilliant and worthy of extensive study and appreciation. But they all flow into and bring life to a single, all-important spot in their output, the heart of what makes Pixar uniquely Pixar: Character-first storytelling.
Split diopter effects, realistic handheld camera stabilization, and distinctive cine glass work together to create an aesthetic that allows Pixar's emotionally-driven (and exceptionally-executed) narratives to unfold in ways we are accustomed to seeing mostly in live-action films. They've found new ways to marry the grittiness of the real world with the impossible one of animated fantasy, forging a place for childlike hearts to meet adult minds where growing up and growing old is held in suspension... playtime.