Born and raised in Dallas, filmmaker Ian Megibben joined Pixar’s lighting department in the summer of 2006. Since then, he has worked on Academy Award-winning films such as Ratatouille, WALL•E, Up, Toy Story 3, Brave, and Inside Out.
As a director of photography, Megibben supervised the lighting for Pixar’s first television special Toy Story of TERROR! and later the feature film Finding Dory. He was most recently the director of photography for lighting for Disney and Pixar’s latest outing, Soul, which is set to debut on Disney+ this weekend.
In the Pete Docter and Kemp Powers-directed Soul, life begins before a person’s arrival on Earth. Through the journey of a jazz-loving teacher named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) and the soul who guides him (Tina Fey), the film offers a colorful and playful look at “The Great Before,” a place where souls get their personalities before they’re born.
The Denton Record-Chronicle recently spoke with Megibben to shed some light on an aspect of animation that virtually goes unnoticed. We discuss creating authentically lit sequences and how the world of animation causes him to look at his reality differently.
Preston Barta: Was there anything about the Dallas arts scene that contributed to the creative path that you’re on as a filmmaker?
Ian Megibben: “Let's see. I grew up in Dallas, and my father worked in the advertising industry in Dallas throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s. I came at it from that angle. I worked at a few places in Dallas and studied in Los Angeles. But everything from the music scene, Deep Ellum, to just being around other artists in high school and everything—I think that was it. Everybody would go to Deep Ellum on the weekends to watch different local bands play. And so that was it for me. That or the Bronco Bowl.”
With your role at Pixar, the idea is for audiences to not really notice what you do. You contribute to the film’s authentic feel. But is that an odd thing, that the idea is for your work not to be noticed?
“I mean, it's always nice and flattering to hear that a movie you worked on looks good. But I think it's actually better to hear how much they enjoyed the story — and if there's a particular feeling that you specifically were trying to evoke through, in my case, lighting. And they say, ‘Oh, I was watching that scene, and I felt [this].’ Or, ‘I felt like I could smell this.’ Or, that kind of stuff that's even more exciting because you're like, ‘That's exactly what I was going for!’ Often, if an audience is noticing the finer details that we put in there, as much work as we put in there, if they're noticing those, that means that they're not as engaged. And I'd rather have somebody engaged in the movie that I worked on.”
I know that Matt Aspbury is also listed as a director of photography. How did you go about balancing the responsibilities with him?
“It's pretty clear delineation, actually. He handles the camera and the framing and the staging and blocking of the characters. Matt is at the front-end of the pipeline. And then I'm at the back end of the pipeline where I focus on visually bringing everything together. And then, I work with the lighting department as well as other departments to create the final picture. But the two of us work together all the time. We would constantly meet and just talk. It really is a partnership where we need to almost be two halves of the same brain. So, I loved working with Matt. It was fantastic.”
I want to bring up the scene in the film when Joe is playing the piano and is lost in the moment. With the blue lighting and surroundings dissolving away, you really capture the feeling of zoning out in a beautiful moment. What conversations did you have with directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers about creating an emotional throughline with the visuals and lighting?
“It's a matter of modulating a lot of things when you're talking about a throughline across the whole film. But an early conversation I had with [Docter] was about the importance of making sure that the audience understood that it’s a pretty faithful representation of what a jazz club would look like. And for somebody who doesn't go to a lot of live performances, they may think that it looks like a dive as opposed to a revered jazz club where history has been made. But to be able to telegraph that to the audience and let them know that this is special, that was something that I felt was important to achieve through the lighting.”
“In that first sequence where Joe goes to audition, I used that as an opportunity to frame it almost like a performance, but in a believable way that also didn't step on the performance that happens later on in the movie. So, yeah, I think that's a pretty good example of one of our earlier conversations.”
How do you go about creating authentic lighting? For animation, I can only imagine that you either take photos or shoot video to use as a reference. When you’re shooting live-action, you can discover cinematic lighting or use naturalism. But here, you’re building from the ground up.
“Everything from the sets that we build to the lighting designs, there is a lot of research that goes into that. And it could be, for the lighting, in particular, sometimes there is an idea that I'll have in my head, and I'll either look for other movies that have similar scenarios, so that I can relate that to lighting artists, or we have painters in our art department who are amazing. And I'll talk with them through it, and we'll come up with some of those designs. But you're right, it's very deliberate. The goal is to make something that feels natural, that doesn't look like it was thought out that much. But in reality, it is.”
What shots in the film do you feel most proud of?
“I mean, there's so many examples. I'm really proud of the work the team did and the collaboration that we had with other departments to make that happen. Everything from the audition scene at the beginning to the point where Joe's walking around outside in midday light, which is the most unflattering lighting to capture, but it was important for the storytelling at that moment to make it feel like an unflattering day. And I think that that came across really, really well. To some of the more poignant moments later on in the film, yeah...I don't want to go too far into spoilers.”
How about creating the lighting in “The Great Before?"
“That wasn't obvious to us. We spent so much time developing that look, and it really came down to a lot of the work. Some of the team members, like Steve Pilcher, who was our production designer, would come up with a bunch of rules and contradictions. He would say that we need to be able to read the form, but it needs to be formless. I was like, ‘Oh, great. You're really making the job easy here.’ But for The Great Before, it was this idea of capturing the playfulness of a nursery. But at the same time, it needed to feel abstract and untethered to any concepts that we have here. So, there really is very little symbolic kind of stuff going on up there. You can't look at a structure and really point out what it is. And so it came through. But at the same time, you need it to feel warm and inviting.”
Does doing the work that you do in animation cause you to look at your own reality differently?
“Oh yeah. I mean, anybody that does this is studying the world around them all the time. So for me, I'll get lost and my family will be like, ‘Are you looking at the lighting right now?’ And the way that something streams through. I'm like, ‘Yeah.’ But somebody who is creating the materials for a leaf will spend a lot of time looking at leaves around them. And the same thing with somebody who is doing the lighting work.”
This is kind of ironic, considering what the movie is about.
Soul will be available to stream on Disney+ on December 25.