How the Director of Photography got his start at Pixar Animation Studios

"Patrick Lin joined Pixar Animation Studios in September 1997 as a camera and staging artist on “A Bug’s Life.” For more than 20 years, Lin’s work has been a part of 13 Pixar features, including six Academy Award®-winners. He served as director of photography for “The Incredibles,” “Up” and “Inside Out,” lead camera and staging artist for “Ratatouille,” and camera and staging artist for “Brave” and “Coco.” He most recently served as director of photography for “Toy Story 4,” which was released in theaters on June 21, 2019.

 

In addition to his feature work, Lin is also the director of photography for two critically acclaimed theatrical shorts, including “The Blue Umbrella” and the Academy Award®-winning animated short film “Bao,” which played in theaters in front of “Incredibles 2.”

 

Lin started his career as a camera assistant at Midland Productions and was later promoted to director of photography, working for clients such as MGM, Tower Records, Sea World and IMAX. He joined Skellington Productions for his first animated feature “James and the Giant Peach” as a camera assistant. He later worked at Matte World Digital as a motion control operator and worked on feature films such as “Wag the Dog,” “The Truman Show,” “Soldier” and “X-Men.”

 

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lin’s visual style is heavily influenced by Hong Kong, Japanese and American pop culture and cinema. While earning his film degree at California College of Arts, he developed a deep passion for visual storytelling and the art of cinematography. Upon seeing “Toy Story” in 1995, he realized that cinematography had become an integral part of animated films and knew his unique blend of experience in live action, special effects and animation would be a perfect fit for Pixar.

 

Lin resides in the Bay Area." (Pixar) 

  1. 1. Interview with Patrick Lin

On June 25th, I sat with Patrick Lin, from the Bay Area of California, through Zoom to speak with him about his career through film, animation, and photography. Attached below is the transcript from the following interview.

 

SHANNON: My name is Kathleen Shannon, I am with Her Campus at West Chester at West Chester University. I am here to interview Patrick Lin, who is the Director of Photography at Pixar Animation Studios. To get started, I would love for Patrick to tell us more about yourself.

 

LIN: Sure! I am a Director of Photography at Pixar. I have been there for 23 years and I have worked on 13 feature films and numerous short films. My first feature film was Bug’s Life and I DP’ed four feature films. My first one was the Incredibles, the second one is Up, and then Inside Out, and the latest one is Toy Story 4. I also DP’ed two short films, which were the Blue Umbrella and Bao. I did that for 23 years and grew up in Hong Kong, born and raised there. And then I went to high school in Canada and then a college in the Bay Area, and I’ve been here ever since.

 

SHANNON: Amazing! That’s really cool, all of those films I’ve grown up on so I love being able to hear all about it. To follow up on that, what made you pursue your career in photography? 

 

LIN: I think I have always loved taking photos. Since California, I have been scanning my negatives and I realized that some of my negatives went way back to when I was in middle school. So I have been taking photos most of my life, although back then most of my photos were out of focus I found out. So I have always loved taking photos and I always loved watching movies. I knew when I was twelve that I wanted to study film. I also like animations but I cannot really draw at all so I never thought that I would be having a career in Animations. So, my goal back then was to always be a filmmaker and study live-actions. So, I went to school with a film degree and when I was working on my student films, I sort of realized the self-gravity towards the camera. I always liked to make sure the shot is set up right. I want to make sure that the camera movement and lighting is right. So, after I graduated, I tried to look for jobs that were camera related. Somehow, it kind of evolved into doing camera assisting and then becoming a DP, and doing layout work at Pixar. 

 

SHANNON: That’s amazing! Now how did you get your start at Pixar Animation Studios?

 

LIN: As I had said, I studied film and live-actions. So after I graduated, the Bay Area did not have a lot of live-actions. I didn’t really want to move down to LA, being already settled up here so it was really hard finding a live-action job. But what we actually have a lot of up here is special effects houses in the Bay Area because we are in proximity to Lucasfilm and ILM. (Industrial Light & Magic) So there were a lot of special effects houses so somehow I got involved in doing special effects. My first professional paying job is a special effects company, they specialize in Ride* films so they are not in film production. They are if you have ridden star tours, filmed simulation ride film before they begin to program it. I started as a camera assistant and back then, before digital, everything was done with analog. So we have motion control programming so we have a huge camera that is set up on a computer track that I actually fly through models. Besides just being a camera assistant, I started learning how to program a motion control camera. In a year, I became a DP Motion Control Programmer. That is my real start. One of the jobs I worked on was for IMAX, it’s called Fun House Express. They have a stop motion animation character in there. For that job, the company hired an animator, Anthony Scott, and he just finished working on Nightmare before Christmas. So that was my first animation experience. This was all about how to work with an animator by programming the camera and how he works and I really learned that way. When we are done with the job, we went “...oh, we are starting on a new film called James and the Giant Peach. Maybe you would be interested in working on that?” I replied saying, “Yeah, that sounds like fun!” So I applied and I was hired as a camera assistant for that movie. That was my first feature animation experience, which was actually kind of perfect...because it gave me live-action experience and a little bit of animation experience. Stop motion animation is a bit of a hybrid of both because you are using something that is real in space. So that was my first animation experience and it was kind of a tough job, everything is pretty heavy by design. This was also a Disney Production too; While we were making that film, Pixar was making Toy Story. At that time, they just finished their first completed scene, which was the army men scene from Toy Story. And since we were both [connected] to Disney, they showed it to us through a special screening of the scene. After I saw it, it just blew me away. Such as how detailed everything was, and how fresh everything looks. I always knew Pixar existed because of their short films and I always admired their story-telling skills. So, I always loved Pixar. Seeing that clip from Toy Story, it kind of changed my mind. It kind of changed my life. Because I thought this is something that is through the computer and something cinematic can be applied simultaneously to the animation’s medium. I thought if I could work on that, that would be really cool but I don’t know computers. I don’t know anything...well I know a little about computers, very basic knowledge. But what topics make a movie? I have no idea. After James and the Giant Peach wrapped, that medium sort of died out for a little bit because there was no follow up for productions from James and the Giant Peach. So I thought, why don’t I apply to Pixar? I tried to do some research to see if they had something equivalent to the camera department for computer animation films. I found out that there was something called a “layout department.” I applied to the Layout department and Layout Artist [position]. It took 9 months over three interviews and they finally hired me for Bug’s Life.” So that’s how I got into Pixar.

 

SHANNON: They are all amazing movies too so that’s really cool that that was where it all started. Following that, what does your day-to-day workday look like and what job roles do you have?

 

LIN: I am a cinematographer, so my job is to be responsible for the cinematic design of the film. Live-action directors of photography are usually responsible for the lighting, camera, lens, and composition. Whereas computer animation differentiates. I always explain as live-action is “lights, camera, action,” which is kind of their pipeline. But in computer animation, it is “camera, action, lights.” First, you have to set up the camera. Second, is the acting part and the animations. The last part is the lighting. The cinematography part was split between the two extremes: the beginning and the end. I came in the beginning, I work in the camera staging department so I am responsible for the camera work, the framing, the compositions, the lens, and the camera movement. We also do something called “staging,” which is finding out where the character is, where to place the camera, and how to choreograph the actions of the entire scenes. We have to work that out before we hand it out to animations. So during pre-production, basically my day-to-day work, is trying to do research and come up with the cinematic language that can support the story, working with the lighting DP, making sure we are working on the language together, working with the art director, and working with the sets department to make sure that the sets will accommodate how we want to shoot the film. We make sure that the sets fit the actions and how we want to shoot the film. During production, I lead the team. Usually, for feature film, we have an average of 14 layout artists and we compose the shots, set the lens, set the “F stop,” and then do an initial blocking. We have to do some sort of animations before animations actually start because, in order to figure out the framing and the timing of the shots, we have to know how the character stands, how the character would go from point A to point B. So I supervise my team to compose and then block out the characters. Then we also work with editorial and the director to try to come up with a cut of the movie. That cut is basically the movie down to the timing. After that cut is done, we’ll hand it off to animations and they will start animating.

 

SHANNON: Wow! That’s impressive, all of the stages that it goes through. Now going off of that, what is the average rate to complete a movie since there are all of those different steps that come along with it? 

 

LIN: I think the average is about four years, but sometimes it can take as long as seven. If you take the average, the first two years are pre-production so that is the story, art, and editorial trying to come up with a story reel. A story reel is basically drawings timed to temp dialogues and sound effects so that you can get a feel of the movie before you make it. The first two years are basically trying to come up with the story reels and then the design. The camera doesn’t really start until the third year, and that is the average. But, you know, sometimes things do take longer than expected. Pixar really invests in the story and if the story is not working, we have been known to stop production or delay the film to try to fix the story. So if some of them take longer, that is the reason why. 

 

SHANNON: Sure! Now along with that, in your career, like you were discussing, what would you say was the best advice that you have received along the way in your career path?

 

LIN: I forget who said this, but I think the best advice that someone had once told me that really stuck with me was “always question what you’re doing, even if you have done it a thousand times because there is always room for improvement.” If you question it, you will always try to look at it in a different way and you can always find a better way of doing things. If you are not used to it, in every production we always try to reinvent the wheel a little bit. Maybe, the director wants to work a certain way, we would have to pipeline how we would want to work to suit his style. By doing that, change always makes you think and it will always keep you on your toes. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years and I am still learning new things all the time and new ways of doing things. I think that is something very valuable. I cannot do it all of the time, I can’t look at things differently all the time. But once in a while, you do step back and ask if it’s the best way to do it. It’s a real pain doing it that way. 

 

SHANNON: Yes, that is definitely a great piece of advice in any career. Now along different things that you were saying with the production process about going back and rewriting certain things that fit the storyline, what would you say for you that are some challenges for you in your career?

 

LIN: Production is always challenging. Pre-production is the fun, honeymoon period because the sky's the limit.  You’re doing research, you can do this and that, and then you come up with something that is fantastical. But when you are doing it in production, you begin to compromise. I think learning how to compromise isn’t always easy. You can always say “No! I have to do it this way.” But then again, most of the time you can but you have to be responsible. You have a deadline and you have to finish something within a certain budget. I cannot sit and say, “...my creativity is the most important thing…” I think once you’re in production, you have to learn how to compromise which is always challenging. Knowing that you really want to do something, but knowing you can’t always do that, you come to a realization asking “how can I still retain the essence of what I was thinking but still meets the production reality?” Transition is always tough.

 

SHANNON: Yeah, that is always understandable. For the movies that you were listing, you had a list of movies you had previously worked on, what would you say was your favorite movie or clip that you have worked on in the past?

 

LIN: I like all of them! But I think Inside Out is definitely one of my favorites. The movie itself is such a deep and emotional story and it teaches the audience something that is very valuable. That being sad is a very valuable thing, so don’t try to suppress it. I think that’s a very valuable lesson for anyone to learn. But I also think it was a very fun production as well. It was the second time I worked with Pete Docter, the director, and Irina Carmen, the co-director for Inside Out and story supervisor on Up. This was also the second time that I had worked with the editor, Kevin Nolting. So there was a rapport, a shorthand going and it was a lot of fun working with them.

 

SHANNON: That sounds amazing! As we were going along, you were talking about different things in your career and different advice you have gotten over the years. What would your best advice be to give to college students if they wanted to pursue careers in the creative field? 

 

LIN: I think perseverance. SOmetimes when you pursue a career in creativity, sometimes it will move slower than you expect. For me anyways, that was the case. After I graduated, it took me a few years to actually get my first paying, professional job and I always set small goals for myself. Such as, “...this year, I will get my first internship.” And then the next year, I can get a one week paying job, which would be great. So you have to take baby steps, but if this is something you really love, then don’t give up! Keep doing it regardless. 

 

SHANNON: Absolutely! I think that’s a great piece of advice. I believe that is everything, is there any other comments or statements you would like to say before we wrap up? 

 

LIN: No, thanks for the opportunity!  

SHANNON: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to be able to talk with us. This was really great, honestly I have always loved Pixar so it was really great being able to talk about it.

 

LIN: Thanks!

 

….

 

[END]

 

*Ride films are…” from the point of view of the main character.” (Redraion)