With over a decade-old stint at Walt Disney studios in computer graphics, Technology Manager at Disney Animation Studios Rajesh Sharma speaks to us about the nitty-gritties of his craft and the upcoming movie Moana for which he managed the technology for hair, water and vegetation. Excerpts:
What are the changes in animation technology that have taken place in recent years?
Use of global illumination and ray-tracing for rendering has significantly advanced the look of animated films and made it much easier to set up lighting. It provides a much better approximation of real-world lighting. In the Big Hero 6 time-frame we invested in creating our own software renderer (Hyperion) that uses state-of-art research to enable us to render the high level of environmental and character complexity that you will see in Moana.
Are there any upcoming or potential revolutionary changes in the industry that were used on Moana?
There were a few aspects, which sets the movie apart from others. For instance, we wrote a water-solver (Splash) which is a code that helps us show realistic motion of water including the water in the ocean, boat wakes, shorelines and waves. This was important, since the movie mostly takes place in the water. Another technological advancement came in the form of the hair simulation model, which gives a very high quality simulation of how real hair would behave with motion, underwater or with heavy breeze.
Is there any particular Disney movie that influenced your perspective and outlook towards animation as a profession?
I love that there is a great amount of history at the Disney Animation Studios with classic films that go all the way back to 1937 (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). All the movies since then stand the test of time and realise appealing characters set in believable worlds that act in memorable stories. As a technologist, it is amazing to see that the principles of animation haven’t changed much since the early days. It is only the tools and techniques that have evolved. For me it is remarkable that with every film we are able to bring technological innovation that helps our artists tell the story that they want to tell.
Tell us about your journey at Walt Disney Studios?
I have been working at the Disney Animation Studios since 1997. I started on a movie called Dinosaur, writing software for lighting tools and pipeline. I studied computer graphics and was always interested in using them for animation in the entertainment industry. I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles where I first worked in the VFX industry writing software tools on movies like Titanic and the Fifth Element and eventually ended up at Disney Animation.
How different is the production of an animated movie as opposed to a live-action movie?
In an animated movie, everything is created, whereas in a live-action film you shoot actors and scenes through a camera. This means that in an animated film, an artist has to go in and think about and design and construct every piece of texture, prop (street light, cars), environment (trees, sky, grass, ground), set (buildings, furniture), and character (body, clothing, texture, hair). Then someone has to rig the characters to be animatable and capable of displaying motion and emotion expected of those characters. Other artists set up the lighting, camera and add effects like rain, fog, fire. The entire process is complicated and laborious but ultimately extremely rewarding. The music and sound aspects, are similar between the two kinds of movie-making.
What are your upcoming movie projects?
We just wrapped up Moana that will be released in the US on Nov 23rd, we are already working on the sequel to Wreck-It-Ralph for early 2018 and have started some research work for our next feature, Gigantic, after that.