Pixar’s Approach to Making ‘Lightyear’ a Sci-Fi Epic

Pixar may be known for its originals, but the animation studio has also produced a few sequels and prequels for its unforgettable films. While the Toy Story films may have given us a glimpse at Woody’s history, Lightyear serves as the definitive origins story for the brave space ranger that we all know and love. But rather than follow the character as a toy, the spinoff is presented to us as one of Andy’s favorite Sci-Fi films. As such, director Angus MacLane assembled a group of talented artists to achieve that cinematic look and feel that one gets when watching a Sci-Fi movie like Star Wars and Aliens.

The Nerds of Color participated in the virtual press junket for Lightyear, where they learned about Lightyear and how the creative team helped make Pixar’s first Sci-Fi epic through their research trips to NASA and knowledge of the film genre. Though our earlier coverage centered on the broader impact and influence of the research trip, this piece focuses on how the trip influenced the costuming and visual effects of the film.

Since Pixar emphasizes grounding its films with a kernel of truth and a sense of reality, Lightyear draws from the NASA research trips that the artisans took during the pre-production process. Fran Kalal (Tailoring and Simulation Supervisor) led a team that took what they knew about art and fashion to make the costumes of Lightyear, the physics, and computer science to aid in the performance with our characters, outfits, and hairstyles.

LIGHTYEAR – Concept Art by Grant Alexander. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

They designed several suits that advanced over time with each one of Buzz’s test flights. But with each return home, Buzz experiences a time dilation that ages the space ranger minutes while everyone else at mission control ages years. “Each time buzz returns from a test, Star Command has years to plan the next ship and suit in hopes of supporting buzz to complete his mission,” Kalal said. “What changes to the ship, suit, and fuel of each mission will reach hyperspeed and get the crew home?”

Using their research trips, reference material from the Smithsonian, and a tangible replica, Kalal and her team came up with a suit that mirrored the layers upon layers of cooling wires, heavy metal rings, and impermeable outer shell utility gauges and instruments. And just like the NASA spacesuits of yesteryear changing over time, Star Command’s suit also evolves. The first suit we see has a bulky chest box secured with a web harness. The oxygen hose is loose and unwieldy. There’s also a wrist communicator. The rest of the suit has padded knees, elbows, and shoulders to protect the user from jostling in the ship and offers mobility. The utility belt is bulky with large metal buckles. And the boots, gloves, and neck rims all allow for rotation, but they’re pretty heavy and unwieldy.

So, by the time Buzz reaches his 14th mission, Star Command’s latest suit is sleeker and has better mobility, with a more integrated mech and life support system with echoes of the Space Ranger outfit. The chest box is now integrated into a central upper torso backpack with environmental controls, and the hose is now integrated into the chest box. The eject harnesses straps mimic the silhouette of the Space Ranger costume. The wrist communicator is now integrated into the wrist ring. And the magnet on the back securely fastens the wearer into any compatible chair.

Finally, “Buzz makes his way back to his space ranger suit. This suit is an EVA or Extra-Vehicular Activity suit,” Kalal confirms. “Buzz can perform demanding physical tasks outside a spaceship. In this suit, most of the fabric is replaced by well-articulated hard surface pieces that afford both mobility and maximum protection. Now, you might almost recognize this suit, there’s a familiarity to the toy Buzz Lightyear, but it’s not yet complete.” Of course, Kalal wouldn’t elaborate on the suit’s other features since it would be delving into spoiler territory.

LIGHTYEAR – Concept Art by Dean Heezen. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

And while the suit in the film may resemble the one we see in the toy, there are a few differences. “To achieve this look, art modeling and rigging and animation design worked interactively to give the broad strokes of his silhouette we recognize on the more realistic proportions of a human Buzz Lightyear,” Kalal said. “The level of detail on the suit is a new achievement for our hard surface modeling at Pixar. And the cloth texturing and stitching on the gloves brings a new level of realism to the costume. And the graphic designer integration brings a new level of detail and believability to the suit.”

These complex costumes require extreme collaboration between art modeling, rigging, tailoring, shading tools, animation, shot simulation, and lighting artists. So all hands must be on deck to create a unified look with the characters and costuming to gel with the visual effects and cinematography.

Working alongside visual effects supervisor Jane Yen, the idea was to create a more graphic and less hyper-realistic stylization. It would be a stylization that felt exceptionally cohesive in every element of Lightyear‘s world, both in the way it was animated and how it looked. “We wanted to avoid realistic characters in animation in a cartoony world, or cartoony characters in a realistic world,” Yen said. “The goal was to strike a precise balance across sets characters, class simulation, effects, and lighting.”

LIGHTYEAR – Concept Art by Ian Megibben. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

After some exploration, it became clear that the most significant impact would come from focusing on the holistic oversight of the world’s shading, look, and materials. So, the Pixar team needed to consolidate the traditionally split sets department and character department into one.

“We reorganized our teams to create a single shading department. This structure has allowed for a more cohesive relationship between Shading Lighting and art, shared knowledge techniques and material libraries like process and character models, and ultimately, consistency of style and illumination response,” Yen said. “Additionally, with his structure sets and characters were able to put more focus on developing the intricacies of our shape, language and model detail.”

The newly assembled look team would need to overcome one of Lightyear‘s biggest challenges: making Buzz recognizable from the Toy Story world and a distinct person in the film world. “We achieved our look by using characters’ shapes with real-world details. And to help tie the scale of the world together with our characters, we focused on tactile materials and manufacturing details,” Yen said.

And since Lightyear will be Pixar’s first IMAX film. So the team would also need to create a virtual IMAX camera with 1:43 aspect ratio and develop a pipeline to allow them to simultaneously shoot the film for IMAX and then cropped down for our standard 2:39 format.

LIGHTYEAR – Concept Art by Maria Lee. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The look team also focused on the various hairstyles that the characters have. Yen was incredibly proud of the look team for overcoming the challenge of rendering the braided hairstyles seen in the film. “Our braid system has controls for braid partitioning, curl, and graphic shaping that have allowed us to bring our beautiful characters even further to life,” she said. It may be hair to some, but it’s so much more to others. So to be able to see that representation is important as it allows some in the audience to see themselves in these characters and has dreams of going “to infinity and beyond.”

Lightyear’s look team also had to create the clouds and planets as seen from space. So they developed a procedural system to generate terrain and volumetric clouds that were of high fidelity. But the one thing the team as looking forward to was visualizing hyperspeed in action. “One of our most fun challenges was creating hyperspeed. The hyperspeed effect was a key story point and critical to get right for the film. Rather than base the look purely on what physically happens, Angus and art leaned into finding a visual stylization with a wow factor,” Yen said. “Ultimately, for our final look, we went with this style of long, multicolored streaks that pays homage to the classic sci-fi films that Angus loves.”

Lightyear opens in theaters on June 17, 2022.