Sharon Calahan has been working at Disney•Pixar for 20 years—since Toy Story—and was around for when the company as we know it today was born. She’s the Director of Photography-Lighting for The Good Dinosaur, and we were lucky enough to sit down with her and talk about working at Pixar for two decades and what’s changed since 1995.
So, what’s different about Pixar now vs. then? “It’s funny,” Calahan said, “the company certainly has gotten a lot bigger. There’s a lot more amenities that make it a comfortable place to work—it was pretty Spartan in the old days. I didn’t even have a proper chair with arms that worked, or a phone that worked, or a desk that wasn’t falling apart. But the things that have stayed the same are the core principles of why we’re doing what we’re doing. And that drives everything from the top down. So, to me it doesn’t feel different, except that, you know, the food’s better.” Yes, the food at Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, CA is known for being gourmet and delicious (we’ve tasted it and have to agree).
“Pixar’s always tried really hard to create an environment that inspires creativity, where a high emphasis is placed on great art and craftsmanship and sharing knowledge, and that has stayed the same,” Calahan noted. “Those of us that have been here for a very long time, we always talk about milestone moments relevant to other life events, we always talk about things in Pixar years. You know, what film you were working on when something big happened. And memories always come to me in that way, ‘Oh yeah, that was during Ratatouille‘ … I think each film is a milestone event because they themselves become the memories.”
When asked what other milestones have stood out in Calahan’s career, she mentioned something very specific to Pixar: the anniversary awards. “At 10 years you get a Buzz [Lightyear] statue, at 20 years you get a Woody; as soon as you get your Buzz you start looking forward to your Woody, and it’s such a special moment when it comes. I think that—this is gonna sound really Pollyanna-ish—but I was thinking just last week, driving into work, that I’m at the end of this film [The Good Dinosaur]. I should be tired, but I still love coming to work here everyday. I still get a thrill when I come into the parking lot every morning and wonder what the day is going to bring. And I hope that never goes away.”
She often acts as a mentor for newer Pixar artists—like first-time director, Peter Sohn. “It was really fun to watch him grow. He was uncertain about parts of the process because it was all new to him. But he’s completely unafraid of asking a stupid question and he remembers everything. He learned so quickly, and it was a real honor to be able to support him and watch him grow and develop.”
For The Good Dinosaur, Calahan created 270 visual development paintings, some on location in Wyoming. “When I’m painting on location I’m really trying to capture what I’m seeing as truthfully as possible; to have those memories and educate my eye on how things really look at a particular time of day or during particular weather situations. When I’m painting for the movie it is very much, ‘Okay, how can I take the knowledge I know from being there and accentuate it and really bring out the emotion of it for the film?’ It’s kind of exhausting because you have to invest in it emotionally. So if it’s a really sad scene you can feel really worn out afterwards, and it’s like, ‘Okay, I have to paint something happy next!'”
Even though Calahan has been in the business for 20 years, she still gets nervous about her work and peoples’ perceptions of the films she helps create. “I hope I got it right. It feels like a lot of pressure at the time because the artists are so good at creating the image to match the inspiration, that you want the inspiration to be as good as it can be. A lot of times [the artists] make it better. They’ll take it and just transform it into something better than I thought it could be. I love that.”
And she’s a perfectionist, as is everyone at Pixar. “One thing that spurs us to keep doing more, or start another film, is you always have this itch that you want to scratch to make something better. So I think that we’re all perfectionists. The one benefit I have after years of experience is knowing when the bang is there for the buck. Is it really worth spending that extra percent of time? Is that gonna show on the screen or not? So I think it’s easier for me to let some things go.”
So how does she know when to stop working on lighting one frame and move on to the next one? “It’s kinda like hitting a chord where all the notes sound right. It’s a feeling … Pre-production can be daunting and a mystery. What’s it going to look like? How are we going to get all of this stuff together into a finished image? It’s very overwhelming at the time. So when you start getting the first few images through it gives everybody a true north and a target, and the momentum starts building from there. Just seeing the light go on in everyone’s eyes, and ‘Wow, we’re making pictures!'”
Making The Good Dinosaur was a very emotional process for Calahan, who grew up in Wyoming where the film takes place. “I’m hoping that [the audience] feels that it’s unique and a really heartfelt touching movie that a lot of people poured a lot of love into. I hope it becomes timeless; that it’s one they’ll want to watch more than once, that becomes a favorite over time.”
The Good Dinosaur opens in theaters November 25.