The Simple Beauty of Lighting in Pixar’s ‘Soul’
Art and Experience:
The fake lighting in Soul highlights the beauties of everyday life through a simple rendering technique.
Soul has a sort of magic that lingers in each frame that elicits an emotional response out of its audience. Over the years, Pixar has created a visual experience that has launched the studio’s animation to another level based on how their visuals interact with the storytelling, a phenomenon that hasn’t been fully explored in animation.
Since the release of its first full-length feature 25 years ago, Pixar’s animation has become more detailed. Pixar pushes its films to have more cinematic qualities by making their artificial camera movements look like a traditional camera, and by focusing on making the lighting feel natural.
Even Thomas Flight has noted how the light in Pixar’s Soul is revolutionary in its use of dynamic lighting throughout the film in his latest video.
Pixar has always used light in their films, but it typically looked flat. Although the technology constraints limited how the light could interact with the environment and created basic highlights and shadows, the animation was still revolutionary at the time. As animation technology evolved, so did Pixar films.
What made the biggest impact on the lighting in Pixar’s work was a rendering tool known as ray tracing.
What is ray tracing?
Ray tracing is a rendering technique that produces incredibly realistic lighting effects in digital projects. The algorithm can trace the path of light, then simulate the way light interacts with virtual objects in a computer-generated world. It is a quicker and easier way to incorporate a source of light into a scene rather than tracing the reflection and movement of light if an animator were to use traditional 3D lighting. Another perk to ray tracing is its ability to track the movement of multiple lights and shadows across 3D surfaces.
Monsters University was the first Pixar film to use this new rendering technology to create dynamic lighting. In a previous film, Brave, the torches on the wall produced light but did not look as if they were illuminating the space that they were in. In Monsters University, the light produced detailed highlights and shadows that gave off the illusion that the light source actually lit up the environment around it.
‘Monsters University’CREDIT: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Creating light in an animated world
Pixar takes its cinematography very, very seriously. Large lighting teams are created to focus on the incredible amount of details that are needed to produce lighting that looks like it is producing real, tangible light. Cinematographer Bradford Young was brought on to the project to consult a variety of lighting aspects, one of these including how to light the skin tones of the Black characters, and how the light created shadows, highlights, and reflections that make the world of Soul rich and warm.
Practically motivated light can only work in animation if it is built into the digital set. The people responsible for camera movements and composition have to constantly communicate with the lighting leads to establish where the light is in the scene and how it interacts with the characters to enhance the storytelling.
The light in Soul constantly interacts with its environments. The sunlight mixes with the practical light fixtures to show the contrast in space while illustrating the mood and subtle beauty the light creates in the space.
The beauty of the film’s naturalistic lighting communicates that the light is real. The characters interact with the light in ways that are familiar to audiences like Joe as a cat stepping into the warm light and instantly becoming sleepy. The connections of mundane life that everyone experiences are told through the story’s use of lighting.
‘Soul’CREDIT: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Lighting in the Great Before
The light in the Great Before is noticeably soft and diffused with no clear source. The light simply exists. Sure, there is beauty to it and makes audiences feel warm and fuzzy on the inside, but there is no depth to the light in the Great Before. The Hall of Everything has everything Earth has from the piano to pepperoni pizza, but it is a place made of abstractions and concepts that help souls find their sparks.
It is a place void of feeling and taste. For 22, something is missing that can’t be replicated through an idea, and the lighting of the world showcases the absence of natural light.
The Great Before in ‘Soul’CREDIT: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Lighting on Earth
The lighting on Earth is vastly different from the abstract lighting of the Great Before. When 22 steps into the sunlight in Joe’s body for the first time, the harsh light from the sun creates complex shadows and blinding highlights that are overwhelming if someone is not used to them. The direct and practical light is a clear contrast from the Great Before’s cool light.
There is a clear source of light on Earth that creates richness in a scene, but this kind of light cues a character’s spark. When Joe plays the piano or when Connie plays the trombone, they are highlighted by a backlight from a window that is just out of frame. Although the Hall of Everything has everything earthly, it is missing the beauty that frames our world. When 22 in Joe’s body watches as the helicopter seed falls from the tree, the warm sunlight bathes the world in a golden light that is breathtaking yet simple.
It is the mundane beauty created by light that cues the spark in 22 to want to live a human life.
Joe’s realization of 22’s spark was the joy of everyday life while looking at the helicopter seed would have had less impact if the backlight illuminating the veins of the seed wasn’t genuinely beautiful. Soul notices the beauty that light creates in every shot. The naturalistic lighting on Earth contrasts the soft glow of the Great Before to communicate that there is a unique and important quality to life on Earth. There is value to life outside of our accomplishments.
‘Soul’CREDIT: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
The warm and rich lighting in Soul emphasizes the story being told through the mundane beauty created by natural light. The complexities of light can tell a story better than words or actions through eliciting an emotional reaction from its audience.