How does a digital art heavyweight like Pixar start with nothing and end up with a summer blockbuster? Luckily, we can take a close-up look at their creative process with these progress photos.
The first step is pretty easy: they start with a rough, hand-drawn sketch. These loose sketches are used in storyboarding, which is a critical step in the creative process. It’s pretty much mandatory for a massive project like Monsters University. Actually, here’s an interesting fact: did you know that Walt Disney Studios invented the storyboard back in the 1930s? That should give you an idea of how important a visual rough draft is to a digital art project. Hollywood never needed a storyboard because they could just reshoot scenes from different angles until they found something that worked. With animation, however, making minor changes to a scene can mean that you have to do everything all over again from scratch.
From there, an artist creates concept art based on the sketch. While the sketch helps with cinematography, such as by nailing down angles and figuring out where all of the characters are going to be, concept art helps you understand the emotion in the scene. The addition of color helps the animators understand the moods behind each scene in order to create an emotionally powerful and coherent movie.
Now the real work begins. The artists open up their favorite modeling programs and begin building the characters and the set pieces.
The scene continues to take shape as the artists dot their i’s and cross their t’s.
The artists then add texture, shadows, and animation to make the characters look less like weird robots and more like living creatures with unique personalities.
And voila! The lighting department integrates all of the component pieces in the scene into a complete whole. In Monsters University, Pixar used brand-spanking-new technology called Global Illumination, which allows light to bounce off of objects in a realistic way. Notice how the monsters in the final scene are bathed in a soft orangeish glow? The lights surrounding Monster University campus give the whole scene a fireside look.
I think the main thing to take away from this behind-the-scenes look is how much time and effort went into a single frame. You can’t afford to go with your first instinct with digital art, because if it turns out to be subpar then you’ve potentially wasted days or weeks of work. Spending a few hours sketching out ideas and coming up with concept art can more than pay itself off in the long run!