‘Lightyear’ Cinematographer Talks Collaborating to Find Film’s Visual Language

In 1995, Andy, from the Toy Story films, received a Buzz Lightyear action figure for his birthday. It was from his favorite movie. And Lightyear is that movie. Directed by Angus MacLane, the spinoff is Buzz’s (Chris Evans) origins story. In the spinoff, the title character explores uncharted space for Star Command with his fellow space ranger Alicia Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) in the name of peace. However, when the evil Emperor Zurg threatens the universe’s safety, Buzz may be its only hope to save it.

TUNNEL VISION – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) and his commander and friend, Alisha Hawthorne (voice of Uzo Aduba), are marooned on a hostile planet. While Buzz has tunnel vision when it comes to fixing their situation, Alisha opts to live her life regardless of the planet she’s on, advancing her career, falling in love and building a family. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists for the Lightyear long lead a few weeks back. While much of our coverage centered on the spinoff, costuming, and visual effects, this piece focuses more on Jeremy Lasky’s contributions as Lightyear’s photography director. As the film’s DP, Lasky worked on the camera and staging the characters. “In the Layout department, we plan out where the characters are positioned and how each scene is blocked, as well as the camera angles and camera movements of every shot in every scene,” he said.

While MacLane wanted Pixar’s Sci-Fi epic to have a cinematic feel, the artisans would need to find a way to achieve that look with their current tools and technology. After much discussion with MacLane, production designer Tim Evett, and lighting DP Ian McGibbon, they decided Lightyear’s look should be cohesive, clear, and cinematic. “Lightyear is a complex film, but the storytelling should always be clear. An audience watching a movie is constantly being bombarded with information. So whether through sound or visuals, it’s vital to construct the images that guide the audience through the film, so they’re never confused about what’s happening on screen,” Lasky said. “The emphasis of graphic shapes over form, our shots maintain a visual clarity that helps direct the audience’s attention.” So while there may be a lot of information going on in some scenes, it’s organized in such a way that your eyes focus right on the characters.

So the complex compositions and the ordering of information made the subject matter compelling and were also one of the primary keys to Lightyear’s cinematography. For example, Lasky pointed to a scene where Alicia Hawthorne (Keke Palmer) uses a blaster to shoot a bug. The film uses a narrow band of focus, so the audience’s eyes go to the blaster that she’s holding. Then, as she drops it to her eyes by composing the action in one place in the frame, the audience keeps their eye looking right at Alicia for this very, very quick shot. And by removing some of the unnecessary details in the background, the subject in the center of the frame really pops.

DREAM TEAM – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz (voice of Chris Evans) reluctantly teams up with a group of ambitious recruits known as the Junior Zap Patrol following the arrival of a mysterious alien ship. Taika Waititi, Dale Soules and Keke Palmer lend their voices to the Junior Zap Patrol’s Mo Morrison, Darby Steel and Izzy Hawthorne, respectively. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

And since Lightyear is a Sci-Fi epic, it pulls much of its inspiration from other films. “When I think about films being cinematic, the ones that come to mind all have images that have stuck in my head long after the movie is over and I’ve left the theater,” Lasky said. “Along with our DP Ian, I collected many, many images during pre-production that would help inspire the look of Lightyear.”

While The great Sci-Fi epics may inspire Lightyear, Lasky used images from different films and genres as a point of reference for the bold, clear staging and memorable compositions that we will see in Lightyear. But it was important for the team to remember that they were making a Sci-Fi epic. “Having grown up on a steady diet of Sci-Fi films, I have a deep love of this genre and wanted to make sure we took advantage of all it has to offer,” Lasky said. “I was also fortunate to be the DP on Wall-E. So, I came in with the experience of having previously made a Sci-Fi film at Pixar. But Lightyear and Wall-E are stylistically very, very different.”

Lasky also experimented with a single-point perspective camera for early scenes in the film to communicate a sense of isolation within this rigid structure that Buzz finds himself on the base. They also added extra room dividers to create this pattern of the frame within a frame that leads us straight to Buzz. And when this shot is lit, the structure remains, but the image is focused on the essential storytelling elements and has more emotional weight.

And Lasky and his team were always looking for ways to make the scene feel more visually rich but keep the storytelling intact. They used pieces previously cut from the film during the production process and staged a few set pieces in the right place. By doing that and using the right composition, Lasky’s staging makes it feel as though the audience is in the Lightyear. With the new staging and layout strengthening the composition, they could tell a better story and better focus the eye.

A NEED FOR HYPERSPEED – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), after being marooned on a hostile planet, attempts multiple test flights in an effort to reach hyperspeed and return home. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

But the biggest challenge for cinematography was how to shoot space. And Lasky and his team asked a series of questions that would impact the look of the film. “How do you show speed in what’s essentially a giant void? How do you show relative scale relative distance? How does space look and feel in my ear as opposed to other films or actual reality,” he asked. “So just like on a movie set, we gathered all the departments together. Arts, sets, characters, layout, editorial, animation, shading, simulation, tailoring effects, and lighting. Working as a team, we made a series of shots to pitch to Angus. This is how we thought Lightyear could look in CG, while also focusing on how Lightyear could look in space.”

The collaboration also played a massive part in shaping Lightyear’s look. For example, Lasky says, “models were also being refined animation and layout collaborated on figuring out how Buzz would sit in a ship, how the ship would move, how much vibration would there be in the cockpit, and how would the camera move in the cockpit.”

Meanwhile, Fran Kalal (Tailoring and Simulation Supervisor) was figuring out the seatbelt situation. Greg Peltz (Sets Art Director) was designing the XLR-One from its cockpit to the positions of the buttons and how Buzz would interact with them. And the effects artists provided simple engine thruster effects, sun flares, and these great speed lines seen in the hyperspace sequences. According to Lasky, all this collaboration was “in service of finding a language for space and speed.”

“As you know, lighting and camera are developed on a set simultaneously to create a cohesive image that’s much more difficult in CG. But pre-viz became the intersection of these two disciplines, along with all the others on our film. Pre-viz was a huge sandbox online here where we could all play together,” Lasky said. “There were no department walls. Everyone had a voice in the look of the scene. As a team, we were certainly greater than the sum of our parts. We were able to present Angus with a cohesive visual and technical plan. And because we all trusted each other, we were also able to react to changes as a team.”

Lightyear opens in theaters on June 17, 2022.