Toy Story 4: Creating a Virtual “Cooke Look”

Emulating recognizable visual characteristics of the well-known optics line was just another step in giving the heartfelt project’s CG animation a real-world flare.

Noah Kadner

Emulating recognizable visual characteristics of the well-known optics line was just another step in giving the heartfelt project’s CG animation a real-world flare.

The animated feature Toy Story 4 employed the look and feel of Cooke spherical and anamorphic lenses in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio for its virtual cinematography as a major evolution of Pixar’s animation capabilities. Director of photography Patrick Lin spearheaded the effort to push the visual quality of the movie forward to a level of actually appearing to be shot with specific real cinema lenses and cameras. The completed effect was so striking it caught the attention of Les Zellan, the chairman of Cooke Optics

“I started working at Pixar in 1997 on A Bug's Life,” recalls Lin. “Our philosophy is always to treat our camera as if it's a real camera in a real physical location so that the movements and visuals feel right. We try not to do anything a real camera couldn’t physically do. We also add in imperfections, to make our images feel more organic and have a ‘human touch.’”

Although the final look of Toy Story 4 closely mimics live-action cinematography, Pixar’s production process is markedly different. “In live-action, the order is: lights, camera, action,” says Lin. “But in computer animation, it's actually camera, action, lights. First, we set up the camera movement in the computer, then it goes to the animation team for character movement and acting, and finally, we do all the lighting as part of the final render.” 

Pixar’s animation style has historically eschewed motion capture in favor of keyframe animation, but Lin has pushed hard to move that axiom forward. “We have a huge mocap stage with all sorts of camera equipment,” he reveals. “We have handheld cameras we can attach mocap trackers onto, or we can use a tripod to do a pan and tilt. Those movements are recorded in real-time for the animation team to use. It gives the animation a layer of unpredictability for scenes say when a camera is following along with a walking character, [such as when Riley runs away from home in the 2015 Pixar feature Inside Out].”

With the camera motion well in hand, Lin turned his attention to visual quality. After studying the cinematography of many live-action films and considering the story requirements of Toy Story 4, Lin selected the look of Cooke S4/i primes and Anamorphic /i primes as his stylistic goal. “[Toy Story 4] is about Woody's [Tom Hanks] internal conflict,” Lin observes. “He wants everything to stay constant while Bo [Annie Potts] represents change.” 

“We chose spherical lenses to represent Woody’s perspective and anamorphic lenses for Bo’s,” says Lin. “On Inside Out, we’d already done tests to simulate Cooke's spherical lenses. So it seemed natural to go with Cooke anamorphic lenses, so we could have two sets that we could cut back and forth between.” 

To achieve the desired look, Lin followed a process akin to visual effects compositing efforts but with a bit more artistic license thrown in. “It's not as scientific as you’d think,” he observes. “We started with a set of real Cooke primes, and then we put up an eight-foot-wide chart with a grid to study their distortion. Next, we shot at different distances with different lenses. We were looking to make sure the distortion was correct based on each of the prime lenses.”  

“We also racked focus on each lens to see how it breathed,” he continues. “Finally, we observed the bokeh and lens flare. Those were mostly stylistically/by eye vs. exact numbers.”          

The final results were credible enough that the team at Cooke recognized many of the signature visual touchstones of their optics when they saw the movie in theaters. Zellan himself was surprised by the visual similarities. “We watched the movie, and we said, ‘Wow, we know that’s computer animation, but if it were live-action it looks like it was shot with Cooke,’” he remarks. “Then, I read an interview Patrick did for IBC, where he confirmed the emulation. So we got on the phone to chat and see where we might be able to work together on something in the future.”

“It’s both flattering and a bit intimidating to realize that the ‘Cooke Look,’ which is something we’ve refined over 130 years of manufacturing, can now be recreated virtually,” Zellan adds. “We’re well-accustomed to visual effects companies mapping our lenses for specific distortions for their compositing purposes. But this is also figuring out the color characteristics to put a real Cooke lens into a virtual world.”

“We’ve already been working on this with our new /i3, third-generation metadata system,” reveals Zellan. “We can track our lenses and even their distortion and make that metadata available directly in the lens or via cloud access. But it’s a brave new world to see our lenses completely recreated.”

“The Cooke Look is something we’ve refined over a century,” he adds. “It was a slogan coined by cinematographers originally, and we ran with it. It’s all about the consistent choices we make in the glass we use to deliver those specific contrast and color renditions that cinematographers keep coming back for.

“An audience member may not recognize the specific bokeh or distortion that say, an anamorphic lens creates, but they will have a visceral and emotional reaction at a subconscious level which affects their enjoyment of the story. That’s not to take anything away from what the director and cinematographer do. Their framing, lighting, and obviously the editing all play a part. Everything technical that goes into the movie helps to create the emotional impact.”

Lin agrees with Zellan’s sentiment and observes that the credo extends even beyond lens emulation. “We're always trying to use cinematography to assist the storytelling,” he says. “For example, we created a split-field diopter shot for a scene between Gabby Gabby [voiced by Christina Hendricks] and Forky [Tony Hale]. Gabby is in one of those moments where you use deep focus because she is stuck in the past as well.”

“Of course, we can cheat the depth of field in the computer and have both characters in focus,” Lin continues. “But since our philosophy is to make it look like actual cinematography, the only way to capture that framing in real life is to use a split diopter. We don't want the camera to feel like a toy cameraman operating a toy camera. We want the camera to feel real.”

This short video from Nerdwriter below does an excellent job of detailing the film’s virtual split-diopter work, while this piece from our Shot Craft blog explains the basics of working with there lens accessories.

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