Danielle Feinberg: Make the Best Movies Through Diversity (from Pixar)
Both artist and scientist, Danielle Feinberg is the Director of Photography for Lighting at Pixar Animation Studios.
Her creations can be admired in masterpieces like Wall•E, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Incorporated, The Incredibles, Coco, and much more. Ms. Feinberg turns on the lights on a digital world that would otherwise be dark and invisible to the human eye, just like it would be in our reality. She uses digital photons and shadows to inform us about the beauty and the darkness present in Pixar’s fantastic, yet believable, stories. Harvard graduate and Member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (she votes for the Oscars), Danielle worked herself on Academy Award winning movies like Brave: the first Pixar movie starring a female protagonist.
"Diversity of thought is really important to make the best thing possible."
Danielle Feinberg (guest): You know we make much stronger films because there's different people figuring out how to solve problems and giving feedback and Pixar sort of famous for anyone can give feedback on the movies, and people read it. It's not just, we're not just pretending or something and we all understand that a diversity of thought. It's really important to make the best thing possible. It's like making these movies it's a, I don't know, our crews are 250 people or something, and it's all these amazing people that are creative and tech in a lot of ways or really creative or really tech and all mixed together. It's so fun to be around that, it's a really beautiful thing and you know a lot of times a lot of what we get surrounded by and right now is people tearing each other down, and I'm so proud to have been a part of something that's; that's celebrating.
Simone Salis (host): I am Simone Salis, and this is The Hoomanist, with today's guests Danielle Feinberg. Both artists and scientists Danielle Feinberg is the Director of Photography for lighting at Pixar Animation Studios. Her creations can be admired in masterpieces like Wall•E, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Monsters Incorporated, The Incredibles, Coco, and much more. Ms. Feinberg turns on lights on a digital world that would otherwise be dark and invisible to the human eye just like it would be in our reality. She uses digital photons and shadows to inform us about the beauty and the darkness present in Pixar fantastic, yet believable stories. Harvard graduate, and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences she gets to vote for the Oscars. Danielle works herself on Academy award-winning movies like Brave, the first Peaks their movie starring a female protagonist. Danielle so much creativity and also science and technology at the same time, I want to know, did you have any favorite games when you were growing up? Something that stimulated you and you think maybe put you on the path to do what you do now.
Danielle Feinberg: I mean I think that I was always into everything in school. I definitely like school, I like leaning things but I was definitely into Maths and Science quite a lot and I went into real cool kind of unusual Elementary School that was private, so they just kind of did whatever they wanted. And we had these awesome Science Teacher who would let us choose our own projects and...
Simone Salis: You grew up in Colorado?
Danielle Feinberg: In Boulder Colorado, yeah this place called Bixby School, and so that definitely was a huge influence I had I... don't know all kinds of choice I'm a lifelong lover of Legos, so constructing things. I had some different sets that were sort of almost engineering based where you could put different things together and I had a motor, and you could do different experiments but also sort of mechanical things.
Simone Salis: Lego techno those...
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, it's more like LEGO Technic but some of it had a little more of a science element to a different experiments and stuff, and I had some chemistry set and you know all kinds of funny stuff like that. Because I was super into that stuff I think probably the most critical one when I was in fourth grade one of the dads at that Elementary School said he would teach a programming class after school. And I don't know that anyone's really knew what programming was but we had three computers at the school that I think were Apple II’s, it was the first or second Apple's computers that were made. And I really was into the computers and so I thought well anything else where I get to learn more about the computers, and so learned a language called Logo. Which was a little icon of a turtle that I drove, the code drove it around on the screen everywhere it went it left a line, and so my first experience with programming actually made pictures.
Simone Salis: That was drawing.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, Yeah.
Simone Salis: And were your parents into the Science or Arts or like, how did you have any guidance of references?
Danielle Feinberg: My parents were super artistic. They're both Architects, they both did a lot of kind of fine arts type stuff in college. My sister was a fine arts major and now does all kinds of stuff in Historic Preservation, and it was kind of one of those things where we grew up in a household where my parents threw us in art classes as the kind of thing to keep us entertained a lot of times. And we had this giant sort of dining room sized table in the basement that had gobs of art supplies and that was part of how we entertained ourselves was sitting down there just making art, and so definitely grew up with art all around.
Simone Salis: But not necessarily like any reference in the Science field there was just your passion that was born out of curiosity out of those machines.
Danielle Feinberg: I mean, certainly my parents as Architects both had some Science but I'm not sure that; that was necessarily exactly where they were coming from, not that they didn't have the talent there. But I think their love was sort of more the creation and an art side of things, so but I pretty quickly gravitated to the Math and Science of it all.
Simone Salis: And so you decided to go on with this, you had those interests that drove you and that went on in High School and eventually College?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: You're a Harvard graduate but...
Danielle Feinberg: I study Computer Science, yeah...
Simone Salis: Okay.
Danielle Feinberg: Degree in Computer Science and when I applied I thought maybe I would do Engineering I thought Mechanical Engineering because I've gone to an engineering camp
Simone Salis: Okay
**Danielle Feinberg: Between junior and senior year of high school and thought it was super fun, and thought I was going to do that and then started picking my classes and realizing that some of the classes for Engineering we're not really anything I was too interested in, and... but there was two Computer Science classes that counted towards any engineering degree, and so I thought well take those while I figure out what I want to do.
Simone Salis: Yeah.
Danielle Feinberg: And it really was maybe two weeks into the first semester and I thought, why am I not studying Computer Science because I already know I love Computer Science. And I looked at the list of classes and it's like, oh I would be psyched to take all those classes especially that computer graphics class so...
Simone Salis: Okay
Danielle Feinberg: So, then it became pretty obvious to me pretty quickly.
Simone Salis: And which year was this? Because the computer graphics class...
Danielle Feinberg: Yes, so that would have been 1994 that I took it, I think
Simone Salis: Okay, so Pixar barely existed because I think Toy Story is in between 1993, 1994
Danielle Feinberg: Toy Story came out in ’95...
Simone Salis: 95
Danielle Feinberg: And, so that was ’95, so when I was a senior in my first semester of my senior year twice where I came out and we had a little graphics group and we all went to see it because for us it was that was pretty magical to see an entire feature film made of the stuff that we were sort of devoting ourselves to, so...
Simone Salis: Yeah, you were looking towards something that didn't exist yet.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah exactly, exactly
Simone Salis: It came out, did you have any, you know references in the Science or Arts for women? That's a stupid question.
Danielle Feinberg: Well, I mean there were a few historical figures, but most of them you don't really hear that much about, you know; it was sort of a passing thing. So I would say, you know in the elementary school, we had something called the Einstein Society. We learned a lot about Einstein, and we had little hats that said the Einstein Society. It was sort of like this fun thing that one of the Science teachers put together. I think just to keep kids kind of excited about Science and so, I think there were probably a variety of influences, there were not a lot of female influencers just because there weren't a lot of obvious ones but...
Simone Salis: Growing up of course, and so you graduate from College, and then you did you come to work here straight from College?
Danielle Feinberg: I start of Pixar about eight months after I graduated I had another job that I had an internship between junior and senior year in San Francisco, and they were like we want you to come back full-time, and so it seemed very easy and I thought then I could kind of plot and plan and figure out a way to get into Pixar because Pixar was in the Bay Area so...
Simone Salis: Yeah perfect, yeah and that was it, what did you start doing here? As soon as you got to Pixar.
Danielle Feinberg: I started out as we call them Tender Wranglers back then, now they're called Render Technical Directors, but because it's a render farm, so you were the Render Wrangler. That was actually sort of amusing I'm sort of sad it went away but so it was, I was the first Render Wrangler, so when I came on it meant I got to do renders for the lighting test that the woman who was directing the lighting did, Sharon Callaghan on a bug's life.
Simone Salis: Okay.
Danielle Feinberg: And so I got to be friends with her, and sort of see what she was doing, and then in rendering at least back then you did renders for all the departments. And so, I got to see what the whole pipeline was like and what every department was doing and understand the technical underpinnings of the whole thing because if there's a problem we'd have to either solve it or send it to the right department. And so that was a pretty awesome way kind of come into this place and see what it was all about and understand the technical and what each departments problems and sort of trials and tribulations were. And then on a Bug's Life they got about half of the Rendering Department to help out with lighting just because lighting's last creative steps, so as every other department misses their deadlines, lighting release stays the same. And so we helped out with that, and so I got my first taste of lighting, and then when a Bug's Life ended you know it was kind of back then if you had done a good job on the movie they said well what would you like to do next? And so I said well I'd like to try modelling and I'd like to do lighting and so I got to do a little modelling, and a little lighting and then pretty soon I had done enough lighting and I loved it, and so that's what I sort of specialized in, yeah.
Simone Salis: Let me try from my point of view understanding I'm obviously I'm not from here, I'm not in your field, so I'll just try to understand has a listener might.
Danielle Feinberg: Okay.
Simone Salis: Rendering just to explain is when you have like a rough model and then eventually it's the computer calculates all the lights and materials and the final result of what everybody wants from each department. And that's how we see it from a rough version of the movie to a final visually pleasant version and that requires a lot of computation, right? That’s...
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, so we build a whole three-dimensional world inside the computer, and the code is to some extent mimicking real-life physics. And so, the process of rendering is taking all those files that have you know numbers and letters in them and turning them into an image and what it's doing is really taking that three-dimensional world. And with all those computations and doing things like the physics of how the light is falling from where you place the lights in that three-dimensional world. Sort of understanding what colour is at each pixel and generating a flat 2d image that can go onto film.
Simone Salis: And Pixar had and still probably has their own software developing house. It was Render Man?
Danielle Feinberg: Renderman, yeah; yeah.
Simone Salis: Is that still going on?
Danielle Feinberg: Oh yeah, yeah, Render Man is awesome it's been going for many; many years.
Simone Salis: Yeah
Danielle Feinberg: And used a lot of other places besides just Pixar, so...
Simone Salis: I think it's also licensed that side for you.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah; yeah.
Simone Salis: So, that kind of stuff, and it's a great so you start with that and it's just crazy to be like through that software you can create something so visually...
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: Can do storytelling through that kind of...
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: Those things, and you were talking about something that is also incredibly interesting because you know one thing about lighting, and we have a classic setup. Like we're in the same jobs building right now, and we have natural light it comes from outside through the windows, and there is the artificial light inside a room, right. And we have light that kind is like a specific temperature, colour and it has a way to diffuse through the room and reflects through the faces. And all of this is crazy; you also work with infinitely small objects like particles, and particle effects smoke, rain, explosions some waterfalls. You were talking about a Bug's Life but also, you worked on finding Nemo, right? If you looked at that just looking underwater it's beautiful you can see those small things moving in the water.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, that particular, yeah.
Simone Salis: Yeah, that kind of stuff and bouncing; what is the process of, what is the balance for you between real world physics apply through algorithms to the code that you work with and the result? It's still a cartoon it's still a story at Pixar, so do you go for the ultra-realistic or do you... what do you go for? What is the process for you to decide the right balance?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah you know the business here is storytelling and so what we're going for, is a world to set our stories in, and so what we really want is a believable world. We don't want a physically correct world we're not making like I don't know physics videos for courtrooms or something like that. And so what we want to do is create believable worlds because we also, you know we have this, the ultimate luxury that we're working in a computer. And so we can create any world we want, and we don't want to take that away from ourselves. We want to be able to create art and stylize things, and do all kinds of fun stuff without any bounds and you know like if you're doing a live-action movie you're bound by the physics of this world unless you break into computer-generated imagery.
Simone Salis: Right.
Danielle Feinberg: So, we're always just shooting for a believable world.
Simone Salis: Okay that's what you go for and at the same time you do need although some like for the light parts
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, and for lighting for special effects for Karen cloth we need to you know for every part of this pipeline we have to harness the power of the computer. Like we want to use a physics simulator for how hair and cloth move or how particles move to make up water say or in lighting how light bounces off of walls. I think the trap that you can fall in is thinking that; that gets you the best results.
Simone Salis: Okay
Danielle Feinberg: That can get you to a believable play or to an authentic sort of scientific place within the bounds of what humans can do to mimic reality.
Simone Salis: Yeah.
Danielle Feinberg: You can't mimic reality exactly.
Simone Salis: So, far okay.
Danielle Feinberg: The important thing is you want to use the computer up until the point it fails your storytelling and your artistic vision. And then you need an artist to be able to take over and break that physics. As the artists we have to understand what is a thing where you can break the physics to make better storytelling in a stylized wonderful artistic world. And what's breaking physics and it's going to pull the audience out of it and look not believable or you know I don't know if you've heard of the term uncanny valley for humans.
Simone Salis: No!
Danielle Feinberg: If you make humans and say computer animated movie...
Simone Salis: Oh, yeah.
Danielle Feinberg: And you get them really close but not close enough it's really disorienting to the audience and give you this sort of it feeling.
Simone Salis: It starts a comparison it's like oh its close enough but why it isn’t the same...
Danielle Feinberg: It’s not so creepy, creepy
Simone Salis: So, is that why the Incredibles for example are human they're like...
Danielle Feinberg: They’re stylized.
Simone Salis: They’re stylized, it’s like well the Incredible is like retro-futuristic but yeah.
Danielle Feinberg: Right.
Simone Salis: And that's also falls under the decision of like making it, they are human like but not realistically human like?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, and that whole movie has a really fun stylization to it.
Simone Salis: Yeah.
Danielle Feinberg: And so it falls right in line with that, and I think with each movie especially where we have human because as human beings we are so familiar with how human looks and move and act and stuff. In each movie we have to decide which elements are going to be more true realistic side, and which one are going to be more stylist. For example do you need skin, do you want pores in the skin, or does that look gross, right.
Simone Salis: Like perfectly visible, well yeah...
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: And you could see it in some 3D that's; that's true though if you look like not just on YouTube but also in our other like companies working on computer animation it gets to the point where it's a little bit disgusting.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: I am Simone Salis, and this is The Hoomanist with today's guests Daniel Feinberg director of photography for lighting at Pixar.
Simone Salis: How can light tell a story?
Danielle Feinberg: Oh yeah, a lots of ways, so let's say here's a very simple way on Wall•E. Wall•E was a super challenging film because there's no traditional dialogue in the first I don't know 30 minutes of that film. Because Wall•E doesn't speak he makes robot noises and so in any movie you're setting up what the world is in the very beginning. And usually that's done through dialogue two character speaking to each other, what we have is a robot who doesn't speak on a planet. We have to tell the audience that it's Earth, that it's polluted, that 700 years of gone by that all humans are in space in a spaceship. And we have to do it all without dialogue, and so we had to we had to figure out a lot of ways to do visual story time. So, one thing we realized really early on we did a series of test shots I let the test shots get kind of on the reddish side of things. And the funny thing we learned is that as humans when anything looks science fiction if it goes red you think it's Mars; because that's what we're told...
Simone Salis: Yes, almost like a difficult...
Danielle Feinberg: That part is a visual language, right, and I'm controlling like what the color are, there so I had to be really careful especially in that beginning part not to let anything get to red because otherwise the audience immediately thinks it's Mars. And you're going to have to get them disassociated from that to tell them that it's earth and it's not going to resonate the same if the audience thinks it's Mars. Like they have to understand as earth it's their home, it's what's happened to it as it's been polluted over time and so that's a very simple sort of way that just colored does that.
Simone Salis: There's just a subtle decision that you have to make because the audience is never going to be coming unless they're very well educated in the matter of like your work. But nobody's ever going to be conscious of that and, yeah that's going to influence most of the perception of the movie, so you work constantly with this kind of like subtle decisions.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: That influence the story in itself.
Danielle Feinberg: Exactly, and stuff you wouldn't think of that you spend all your time thinking of.
Simone Salis: I think you were talking about in one of your TED talks you've done different, you're very active with girls who code, made with code project at Google and also TED talks. And you explain your work and I think in one of them you were explaining how the forest in brave...
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: I find it such a beautiful contrast you were explaining the difference between the lights in the castle which is pretty classic set up.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: And how the forest in itself is dark.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: And that's also in fairy tales, although they're not so feminist and the message is not towards like the protagonist like Meredith. I think that's the name.
Danielle Feinberg: Meredith, yeah.
Simone Salis: Meredith, taking control of her own life and decision and understanding herself but we do have the same kind of duality like the passage into adulthood. And I think the darkness of the forest was your choice and he was exactly that a step into the unknown and finding oneself.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, exactly yeah, the castle we left sort of lighting of the time period as a, because that's what visually made sense, but also us, I don't know for me being a teenager was like one foot being a kid and one foot in being an adult. And having no idea where you're going or who you're becoming, and so it felt really natural to have this very natural traditional light in the castle, and then the other kind of lighting out in the forest where it goes off in the darkness of the great unknown all over.
Simone Salis: It's a joy to see the silhouettes in the contrast from the background the character itself, like it's just plain beautiful, it reminded me you know this is... you also are doing almost the work of... well you are the Director of photography for lighting. But it's almost as classic as the work of a Director because I think in Black Swan if you have seen the movie. The beginning scene is just a dance between two main characters, it's just light, and dark and that's the whole movie summarize in two minutes. And there is so much storytelling in that kind of or two I watched Coco I think I almost because when I was at the movie theatre it was such an explosion of color from the land of the dead. And it's a contrast with one pictures of the Arthur after life. How did that decision come...what did you guys do to come to that decision in this visual language?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, I mean I think the Land of the Dead was one of the hardest design problems for the movie because it's one of those things where what does that world look like? How do you, what do you base it on? So, if we make a movie maybe like Monsters Incorporated, you're fairly sure that the Monster world is going to, it probably feels right for it to look like the human world but kind of monsterise. And you can do a lot of fun stuff that way, the scene is not true for the Land of the Dead, so what is it going to look like? We've had multiple movies that that were sort of like that, like inside out, what does the inside of the mind look like or something? And so trying to figure that out but one thing we knew is you know you could oversimplify and say well it's, it's sort of the representation of the afterlife and you know that's like heaven and white and blurry. And it was like that was the antithesis of what we wanted, this is a movie about Dia de Muertos, Mexico and it needed to be colorful and vibrant and lively. This was not you know a sad maudlin place that people were hanging out, this is the Dia de Muertos is like a celebration of life, and family, and ancestors. And so we knew it needed to be colorful and vibrant and lively now, figuring out what that world actually looked like was its whole own challenge but we knew from the beginning it was going to be super colorful.
Simone Salis: And it is with millions of lights like the first opening shot you look at all these buildings that each one has I don't know how many...
Danielle Feinberg: Eight and a half million.
Simone Salis: Eight and a half million?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, yeah.
Simone Salis: How do you render that?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, this is awesome, so this guy Tim Bab on the good Dinosaur came up with this light for there's a scene with fireflies, and it's basically through essentially some fancy math and code. Puts a point of light at each one of the fireflies and the computer considers it as one expensive light instead of thousands of lights at each firefly. And so we took that and extend it a little bit, and so each street lamp in that world is one that they all of them together say there's a million streetlights in that shot. If the computer considers that one light through some very fancy math and code, and then there's another light that's all of the blue lights that go run along the trolley tracks. And there's another one that's, and so you end up with actually probably twelve of these we call particle lights that account for I don't know maybe eight million of the lights in that scene, so...
Simone Salis: Right, so you're basically optimizing your compressed, you’re here optimizing like as warm light.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, and it's sort of fancy sampling to get where the light would hit because you know certain things and so you can be very smart about it.
Simone Salis: Well also the Miracle Bridge.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: That’s millions of petals of this luminous light of orange...
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, the Miracle Bridge.
Simone Salis: It’s just... I think like if you need to watch Cocoa, you need to watch it like in HDR.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah...
Simone Salis: It’s one of the few cases here, like oh I really haven’t tried this technology.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: Do you have a favorite project that you worked with Pixar that also made you happy? From what I see here is so passionate that most of what you work on makes you satisfy on a personal level, so for some you know it's a great ability to be able to harvest like this kind of job and understanding of oneself. But do you have a specific one that you look back and think like this influenced me as an artist? As it was a clear turning point for you, and made you very satisfied throughout all the projects that you had at Pixar?
Danielle Feinberg: You know I think it's funny, because each film has its own sort of things you learn, its own hardships, its own joys, and sort of glories to it and so I've always had a really hard time answering the sort of the more simplified version of like what's your favorite movie
Simone Salis: Yeah
Danielle Feinberg: I think the thing that's been interesting is as we got to the end of Coco I was giving a talk to a girls group and they wanted to know what my favorite movie is. And I started to try and explain how each movie has this... I have different associations with each one and I loved all of them it's like which kid is your favorite? Something like that, and then all of a sudden I stopped and I was like no Coco's my favorite, and it's like because I think partially because I had the most creative input that I've ever had on that film. The topic I think is something that I've always been fascinated by the holiday and think it's just like this kind of magical thing. Especially after going for the research trips and really understanding the holiday and what it's about.
Simone Salis: So, you went to Mexico?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah a couple times for Day of the Dead, and having a movie that's about chasing your dreams even when sometimes the other people in the room don't believe in your dreams is obviously very poignant for me. Themes of the importance of family and ancestors is something that I care deeply about, and I think also the thing for me that kind of puts it over the top also is that they got to be this celebration of Mexico and its people, and its culture, and its holiday and it's a really beautiful thing. And you know a lot of times a lot of what we get surrounded by and right now is people tearing each other down and it was... I'm so proud to have been a part of something that's celebrating.
Simone Salis: I want to say a little bit more on the tech of what you're working in, does this VR excites you?
Danielle Feinberg: I think VR, is so fascinating in terms of how often do you get to it's almost it's like creating a new art form like, that doesn't really happen. I mean how many times does that happened in our lifetime saying.
Simone Salis: Movie theme
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, and it's like 3d computer animation feels a little bit like that, like there's animation and there was movies VR feels like this whole other thing, it isn't obvious to me how you tell stories in VR the same way we do. Like we are such crazy people about giving the audience exactly the sort of experience we hope for where we set the camera exactly so just tell the story and we set the lighting for that camera exactly so to tell the story.
Simone Salis: And to share experience because that's the same vision for everyone whether VR turns into this objective science.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, and I think the discovery side of VR where you are controlling what you see is really exciting. It's so different than what we do that I think that's part of the excitement but it also feels like a really different thing. And even just we had someone give a demo of sort of doing almost like painting in VR.
Simone Salis: Yeah, like the HTC vive those kind of like with those controllers that you can paint alone.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, and this was another thing called Quill...
Simone Salis: Okay
Danielle Feinberg: That I think was is born out of maybe Facebook VR Oculus...
Simone Salis: Okay, the Oculus.
Danielle Feinberg: And it was the coolest thing because they were painting but it was creating geometry that is a three-dimensional world. And you could all of a sudden you had conjured up a world and in this very quick sort of easy way and I don't know I think all that stuff is really fascinating.
Simone Salis: Okay, so you keep an open mind about it.
Danielle Feinberg: Oh, yeah, a Absolutely.
Simone Salis: Okay, so you say we cannot simulate physics exactly like in reality and yet we study them, and do you think the world is well rendered? Is it a good rendering; sometimes you want to correct the lights?
Danielle Feinberg: But this funny thing does happen we spent so much time on the eyes and lighting, because they're really important. And when I'm in the midst of a movie I'll be having a conversation with someone and there's this voice, oh the highlight should move, oh the whites of their eyes should be brighter the eyebrow should be brighter, and it's like a little bit of crazy making.
Simone Salis: When you...that's your job then you start to over analyze.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah
Simone Salis: Who knows and it loses a little bit of magic but also the result is always [28: 37 inaudible] you get more and more accurate at what you're doing like that.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah
Simone Salis: I am Simone Salis, and this is The Hoomanist, you can listen to every episode on your favorite podcast or with a full transcript available on hoomans.org. Today's guest is, Daniel Feinberg, Lighting Artists and Code Crafter at Pixar.
You said growing up, you were in a Computer Science class and probably growing up; what is your experience as a woman? Because obviously I don't have that and obviously I'm not in the tech field, how was it for you?
Danielle Feinberg: You know I got to College and it was maybe 10 or 15% women in my Computer Science and Math classes, and I took a couple of Engineering and Statistic classes and it was all a very small percentage of women. And so you walk into that room and no matter what you feel like you don’t belong, and so you have to get over this feeling of being an outsider and like you’re weird for being there or that you’re not going to be accepted for being there. And then you just actually have to do the work which is some challenges in itself, so it was not easy like thankfully, I played softball in College and so I had my sort of almost family that had nothing to do with the people in my classes. And so it felt like well you know this I can feel like an outsider here or these guys can be jerks to me. But I have the people I care about somewhere else, like I have the people that matter to me kind of, and if I hadn't had that though I'm not sure what I would have done because it would have felt really lonely.
Simone Salis: So, a support was fundamental for you?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, like really; really fundamental.
Simone Salis: Your family seems to be very supportive your...
Danielle Feinberg: My family, yes.
Simone Salis: Biological family but also your chosen family.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, the people where you could actually spend time with them or you go hang out with them and you remember there's other things in life than people that are sitting in the classroom kind of you know. And my junior year we I took the Computer Graphics class which I love but we are in the Science Centre basement where the computers were that we had to do the homework on. Previously I've been able to be in my dorm room by myself, now we're in the basement together and the guys are all ganging up together to do the homework. And there's always twists in the homework and they are figuring him out and telling each other and then the girls are sort of scattered in the corners.
Simone Salis: That’s shitty.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, and you're the sort of left to your own devices, the couple times I asked like the most basic questions because I don't even know the operating system like I was sort of left.
Simone Salis: Out of the blue.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, and so I'd ask some simple question and they just stare at me and like it wasn't fun.
Simone Salis: Yeah.
Danielle Feinberg: And it's much better now at least where I went to school there's many more women at least, and so that has a way of changing things. But I got here and first of all you've already made it through that, so you have some amount of thick skin and ways to deal with it. And I played sports also and so I think that has a way of making you understand toughness and persevering and stuff. And I got here and this is a pretty wonderful place and a lot of really nice people, and that's the Bay Area so everybody's pretty open accepting of everyone because that’s just kind of almost the culture in the Bay Area. It's a pretty supportive place, now it's still like you know any kind of unconscious bias that you have anywhere it's not like, it's some holy land where that doesn't happen, that’s impossible.
Simone Salis: And then everything was amazing.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, exactly. So but I think also what helped a lot is that I became friends early on with Sharon Callahan who was directing lighting for “A Bug's Life” as I mention. And she kind of took me under my her wing and mentored me and taught me about lighting but also has the whole... I've been here 21 years, so the whole 21 years has been the person I can go in her office and shut the door and say, “ this is what's happening, what do I do”? And she said she'll help me you know give me advices stuff and so that's been super helpful. So, I think you know it's not always an easy path for sure and I think the important thing is to have the people around you that can give you the straight talk but also cheer you on and be supportive. And that isn't always women, that's men too, like I have had some wonderful male mentors, that can be even more powerful. Because it feels like you know it isn't like, I don't know all men against you or something which I think is an easy thing that lumping together that happens sometimes and it's just not true, like there’s jerks out there of any sex.
Simone Salis: So, diversity is important regardless of the gender, the orientation, the ethnicity or anything else.
Danielle Feinberg: Absolutely you know and it's like making these movies it's a I don't know our crews are 250 people or something and you know we make much stronger films because there's different people figure out how to solve problems and giving feedback. And Pixar’s sort of famous for anyone can give feedback on the movies and people read it, it's not just we're not just pretending or something. And we all understand the diversity of thought is really important to make the best thing possible.
Simone Salis: Why is for the future diversity important in the tech field? I'll tell you I'm honestly concerned with lots of new technologies are facing like facial recognition and that kind of stuff and big corporations working we like governments [34: 01 inaudible]. I'm sort of afraid of the lack of diversity because the bias might be incorporated into this technologist, and I don't want that to happen, that's one of my personal concerns. Why is diversity important like in for the future, in the tech field?
Danielle Feinberg: I think it's a totally reasonable concern that you have because it's proven to be true, so I use the sort of example that everyone uses of you know was all male engineers working on airbags for cars, and when an airbag deployed and it was a kid or a woman, you know...
Simone Salis: It's’ a different force.
Danielle Feinberg: It's hurt them badly, right and so that's a really just simple example of how if you don't have the diversity at those levels then you you're going to run into problems. It’s really important and I think people like to think of it well diversity it's doing the right thing and so will sort of pay lip service to it and check off the box. But the truth is like you know the companies that are going to figure out that they're actually going to make better products appeal to more people and there actually going to make more money if they really embrace...
Simone Salis: Supportability.
Danielle Feinberg: We live in the US, so that's capitalism through and through, and it's like I don't know why everyone so slow to catch on that they're actually make more money when they have better diversity.
Simone Salis: I think that’s a great point you know, it's just like as a gay man, I'm always impressed and I'm a little be thrown off and also surprised to walk into a Target around the Pride weekend in Chicago and suddenly there is Pride isle. [35: 34 Inaudible] I'm like, oh that's great and then I go like. is it? We got turned into a initial holiday.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah, we’ve been commercialized as well.
Simone Salis: And the apple pride band for the launch, but yeah, so that's a very good point is like profitability will save us [35: 57 Inaudible]
Danielle Feinberg: It is on some level in the US, the things that people respond to so...
Simone Salis: What do you think is the way to improve diversity in into that field? How do you think we should? What is a good step that we should take right now? And how can we try to do our best, where do we start?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah. Was funny I was at the lesbians Who Tech Conference.
Simone Salis: There is... I love that
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah it's really fabulous, it's like one of my favorite things I'm like, oh these are my people. It's the lesbians and the tech and it's like a whole room full of my people. But this woman, this very powerful woman of color was on stage talking and she said something at the end of her speech that was like you know you want to know how to hire women of color, hire women of color, right like it's not like they're nowhere...
Simone Salis: Yeah, just make an effort and decide to do it.
Danielle Feinberg: And if you stick to the same thing that has been hiring you white man you're going to her white men, right. Like if you want diversity then go seek diversity and hire those people. And so a little bit it is, it's just laziness and they are like, well they don't apply, so they must not be out there. The thing is like no if you care look if a company realizes that having diversity made the more money do you think they wouldn't go find the people. They would go to the ends of the earth to find the very best people, and so it's really what it's about.
Simone Salis: Yeah, okay so let's start campaigning with that, is like 8 companies you can make more money if you're a little bit less shitty in selecting people that will work for you. I think, in Pixar movies at some point I don't remember which one was maybe Finding Dory, maybe Finding Nemo there was like in the background the first what was assumed to be the first lesbian couple, have you ever heard about this?
Danielle Feinberg: I have, yes
Simone Salis: Was that, can you confirm?
Danielle Feinberg: I cannot confirm I didn’t worked on that movie, so I don't even have the back room conversations or something but I enjoyed the rumour.
Simone Salis: Rumors, yeah right we live for those. At this point, and female again we decided it's not because it's the gender in itself is just because it's important in diversity. And so for the lack of these representations of diversity growing up and not having a specific role model I got to tell you are one now. Because you know that but you I think it's a pretty conscious decision on your side like I can see that most of the work that you've been doing with girls who code, men who code and you just mentioned lesbians and that. It's like at some point of your career did you realize that you were like advancing enough that you also had the opportunity to add a voice with your experience? And so sharing that, do you want to inspire other people? Do want to inspire boys and girls like growing up through this to kind of like be themselves?
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah about 15 or 16 years ago someone mailed out here at Pixar about this girls Math and Science camp, and they were fundraising for something and I looked it up and I sent the people of the camp an email and said I see the camps is next week, so it's too late for next year. But I wish I had had a camp like this growing up, and so if there's any, ever anything I can do you know and I gave them my why I might be legitimate. I'm like I study Computer Science at Harvard and I work at Pixar now and I think it was within an hour I got an email back from the woman who started the camps who is like power house and she's like I've scheduled you to teach two classes next week at the camp. And I thought, oh my goodness what am I going to do, and so that first camp I drove down, it was happening at Stanford. And it was girls in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, Math and Science Camp and I drove down with a VHS tape from Finding Nemo and without a paper and a pen. And that was how I started talking to girls, and I just remember that first time talking to them and I talked all about how we make our movies. But relating it all to the Math Science code, and of course I can’t help but talk about the art and storytelling. Seeing their eyes light up reminded me of when I was in that Computer Graphics Class and saw the Pixar short films and became so inspired about what Math Science and Code can do. And then those girls they wanted my autograph and they just wanted to talk to me...
Simone Salis: That’s awesome.
Danielle Feinberg: And it became really obvious that the impact that Pixar movies have and what I could do if I was willing to spend my time going out and talking about this what it could do for girls, and now underrepresented minorities and all these groups that I go out and speak to. That it could change it so that there weren't rooms anymore, like I experience where I just like Computer Science and I want to study in College. And I walk into almost every one of my classes and I feel like an outsider and that's a pretty crummy feeling in general in life but when you're just trying to survive College you know and work really hard and I might be able to have some small impact on that; that felt really important to me.
Simone Salis: It's hard for women to see that you know Pixar storytelling is famous I cannot add anything even if I wanted to even to rumors, if you read about the culture there was and Ed Catmull and John Lasseter were trying to... if you read a little about those. It clearly shows that there is openness and open minded and the results are so incredibly strong both on our financial and business success, and storytelling wise. It's great to see that it comes from people like you because it shows a path that I think it’s the most important to me that mixes up tech and arts, and that's why they're fundamental, that’s why at least to me.
Danielle Feinberg: The cool thing is that this company is an entire company full of people like that, like it's all of these amazing people that are creative and tech and a lot of ways or really creative, a really tech and all mixed together, it's so fun to be around that.
Simone Salis: Tech alone can be alienating you see that especially in different corporate environments, and just walking inside here you feel that it's the total opposite or looking around at the people it's is just great, enough compliments to Pixar. What matters to you now? I want to see you as a person, strip away the Pixar part and let me ask you what this matter to you in life? Like at the end of the day you looked back at this journey that you had, that Danielle Fienberg and you go I am really glad that I cared mostly about this things, what are those things?
Danielle Feinberg: Working hard is really important to me and I think being a good person is really important to me, and I think a lot of that focuses around being good to the people around me. And also being able to do stuff like go out and talk to girls and stuff and sort of contribute to society as well as be good to the people around me. And I think those are things that I learned from my parents and have just really helped me in my life to get to where I am. And I think, you know being happy is the other thing, and so it's like kind of those three things are the most important things to me always.
Simone Salis: Also finding a balance between those three things.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah.
Simone Salis: Are you a spiritual person or I mean this are perfectly great values to have as a humanist or just as that but are you a spiritual person?
Danielle Feinberg: I think yeah, I'm a spiritual person I didn't grow up with any real...
Simone Salis: Specific religion.
Danielle Feinberg: Religion of any kind and I think organized religion is not really my thing but I’m absolutely spiritual, yeah.
Simone Salis: Okay, what is some advice that you would give to young aspiring Artists and Developers, Code Crafters and Artists?
Danielle Feinberg: I think one of the most important things to know is that for the majority of people as you go down these tabs that there are going to be days where you feel like you're terrible at it. Or you feel like other people feel like you're terrible at it or you make mistakes or things happen or you don't get the job that you really want or these things that if you take them too deeply to heart can take you off of the path that you really want to be on and sort of chase your dreams away. And the thing is that on the path to achieving your dreams you are going to have all kinds of those days, and so if you go into it knowing when I have bad days I'm going to feel dumb, I'm going to feel like I can't do this. And I need to just prepare myself for that so that when it comes, you just go, oh yeah there it is. Okay tomorrow will be better then I think you're much better equipped for it because I think otherwise no one told you that, and you go in and you have those days and you think maybe I'm not smart enough to do this. Maybe I'm not good enough to do this, maybe this isn't the paths set out for me, because I think we give kids this false sense of like well when you find the thing that really good at, it'll be easy, somehow.
Simone Salis: Yeah
Danielle Feinberg: We don't tell them that like [45: 04 inaudible] like you're going to have bad days, and you're going to feel dumb about stuff, like I still feel dumb about stuff. I still feel like you know whenever I do something new like when are people going to figure out I don't know what I'm doing, you know. And it's I think the thing that's been most powerful for me is to understand that; that isn't going away. Like that's part of the experience of being a not completely conceited human., and you know, and the best thing you can do is find a way to have that voice and side-line it and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. So, that you get to the days where everything feels really awesome and you're pretty happy and you get to like live your dreams.
Simone Salis: So, look at the greater picture to follow and find yourself and what you like.
Danielle Feinberg: Yeah and you can't expect that the path is going to be an easy one, you just arm yourself for the day what it isn’t.
Simone Salis: What are some projects that we should check out, girls who code?
Danielle Feinberg: Girls who code is doing such great work man, oh man there’s so many, this is the great thing now with diversity behind such an important issue is that there's so many great organizations doing so many great things. So, it's almost like in every community there's great stuff, so girls who code is in a lot of cities across the US and they do these summer merging programs for girls but also clubs after school that communities can put together themselves instead of having an organized by girls who code.
Simone Salis: Well, so the Stem Programs.
Danielle Feinberg: There's a tonne of Stem Programs, so there's tons of summer programs and it's like each community seems to have its own sort of uprising of awesome stuff going on. There's all kinds of stuff online now like Pixar's been doing this Pixar in a box for a Khan academy...
Simone Salis: What is it?
Danielle Feinberg: And so it's the series of classes for Khan Academy, and so you can get online and get into Khan Academy's, do the Khan Academy classes. There's one that's all kind of Math based about how Pixar does our films, there's a story telling one working on a lighting, there's all kinds of great stuff. And so that's really fun, we have a museum exhibit that's traveling around to different science museums. That's all the science behind Pixar is so awesome it has always hands on exhibits that you can learn about how we do our work and the kind of Math, Science and code behind about it, are some of the artwork too. And so there's all kinds of different ways to get it and not just focusing on the kind of national ones because I think that sometimes you miss out on the really awesome grass roots stuff that’s happening in each community too.
Simone Salis: Thank you so much for joining today Danielle Feinberg Director of Photography for Lighting at Pixar. Thank you Danielle.
Danielle Feinberg: It's been a pleasure, thank you.