VIRGINIA: Hello Mohit, thanks very much for the interview. Would you tell the readers a bit about how you ended up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
MOHIT: I originally came from a programming background. During my master’s program in computer science, I started taking some computer graphics classes, and I was hooked. After graduation I wanted to work at a company where I could utilize my computer graphics background to its fullest, and the film industry was the perfect choice because that industry was pushing the envelope of computer graphics at the time. Initially, I was thinking of doing visual effects or live action, but then I realized that I loved [full CG] animation because nothing in the image is outside of your control. You create every pixel of the image. You’re not bound to the physical realities of the world, either; you can stylize it as much as you want.
“I did my M.Sc. in computer science from BITS Pilani, and then went to the US to do a Masters from University of South Carolina – Columbia (Computer Science). That is where I fell in love with computer graphics. I was instantly hooked.”
About his ‘elaborate’ job profile, Mohit says, “I work closely with the directors and art directors to make sure the movie comes to life — it’s about enhancing the emotional journey that our characters are going through, with lighting.”
He worked on Frozen for two long years. “The ice and snow in the movie were a challenge. We had never done it to this extent before, so there was some R&D involved.”
VIRGINIA: Would you tell us a bit about your job at Disney?
MOHIT: Most recently I was the Director of Look and Lighting on Tangled and the Tangled short. The Director of Look and Lighting works closely with the Director and Art Director to realize the artistic vision of the film. I also make sure that the technical aspects of the pipeline are working in order to achieve the desired look.
Please tell us about your work
The lighting in Tangled is used to effectively convey certain emotions and thoughts. Whenever Mother Gothel is around, the lighting is much dimmer; she seems to suck the life out of the scenes she’s in because, well, she’s evil, that’s why. On the other hand, Rapunzel tends to light up areas she’s in. When Flynn Rider is sneaking into Rapunzel’s tower, the tower is darkened to give the scene a kind of “cat burglar” feeling. Also, go back and watch the scene in which Flynn Rider nearly dies in Rapunzel’s arms. The entire screen is almost devoid of color to give visual emphasis to the fact that he’s dying. Mohit also noted here that, although Flynn was dying, Rapunzel wasn’t, and so she had a bit more color to her; after all, they didn’t want them both “looking like cadavers”, Mohit joked to the audience.
VIRGINIA: What was it like being the Director of Look and Lighting for Tangled?
MOHIT: Being Director for Look and Lighting was a lot of responsibility, but it was very satisfying to be involved with the look of the movie from the start of production all the way until the end.
VIRGINIA: Would you explain the relationship between lighting and look development?
MOHIT: The look and lighting department are very closely intertwined because both contribute equally to the look of the final image on the screen. On Tangled we had environment teams and character teams, and in each team we had representation from all the relevant departments. For example, on a character team we had a modeler, an animator, a look artist, and a lighter. We built our characters and environments holistically from front to back. Ultimately, what the look department produces needs to be easily consumable when lighting the shots, and it’s important to establish that early on.
VIRGINIA: Does Disney have different artists for look and lighting?
MOHIT: For the most part we have different artists for the tasks. Some artists can do both, however; they start in look and move into lighting as the production progresses. We certainly encourage and try to accommodate as much cross-departmental training as possible.
VIRGINIA:What kind of challenges did you face while working on Tangled?
MOHIT: We were on a very tight schedule. The challenge was to make a beautiful movie with a very high artistic bar within the time restraints given. There was also the challenge of establishing the look that the Directors and Art Directors wanted, and then overseeing a large group of people to execute that vision in a short amount of time. Additionally, there were technical challenges developing the rendering and shading pipeline, because we wrote those from scratch on Tangled.
VIRGINIA: What new lighting and shading techniques did you develop for Tangled?
MOHIT: One of the biggest developments of the movie was with the hair. Rapunzel has about 70 feet of hair, and it was a challenge for simulation and especially for lighting and rendering. The hair is like a character in itself, because Rapunzel uses it so much and it’s in every shot. We wanted to make sure the hair looked absolutely beautiful. The hair shader we had prior to Tangled didn’t give us everything we needed, so we hired a research assistant who specialized in the rendering of hair, and we completely rewrote our shader to be more physically based.
VIRGINIA: Tangled had a wonderful look. What were some of the notable inspirations for its visual style?
MOHIT: I divide the visual style of the film into three different categories: shape, texture, and color. The shape language of the movie was inspired by Disney classics, especially Cinderella and Pinocchio. In Cinderella they used repeated shapes and curves to harmonize the images. We used similar shapes in our environments for the same reason. For example, the inside of a bell-shape curve is used quite often. We also wanted a world that was very charming and comfortable, a world that people are attracted to. The world of Pinocchio gave us much of that inspiration. The scale of architecture is smaller, the buildings no taller than two or three floors. Things are low to the ground and chunkier. We also researched European architecture and were inspired by that.
As for texture, we wanted a look that was more realistic than stylized. It’s not photoreal, but the details are more believable. We wanted wood to look like wood and stone to look like stone. When you look at an element you know what it is made of.
With the color we again went back to the Disney classics. We used a lot of saturated colors and pushed saturation especially in the darks. Shadow areas tend to look grayish, and we didn’t want anything to go gray, especially on the human characters. We pushed saturation either in the lights or in the shadows but never both equally at the same time.
VIRGINIA: What was the visual approach with the lighting?
MOHIT: The lighting was also more believable than photoreal. We had some sequences where we had very theatrical lighting. Lighting was used to enhance the mood and direct the viewer’s eye to where we wanted it, but it was always more in a believable sense. We also often used complementary colors such as warm light with cool shadows, or cool light with warm shadows.
VIRGINIA: What things did you take away from this experience?
MOHIT: One of the big things is the need to be flexible and nimble. No matter what production plan we came up with, a million things could go wrong, and they often did. It’s essential to understand there’s a lot of things outside of your control, and you can always be hit with something you won’t expect. You need to be ready—never be surprised by anything.
MOHIT: I believe no matter what your background is, if you work hard and persevere you can achieve your goal. I came into this job from a circular route. I started out in software back on Dinosaur. I wanted to get closer to the art, to the final image on the screen, though, so when an opportunity arose to do some lighting on that film, I took it. I worked hard and continued on with lighting and look, eventually becoming the Director of Look and Lighting on Tangled.
VIRGINIA: What qualities are important for a lighting artist to have?
MOHIT: From the lighting side, we have people in our lighting department who come from a lot of different backgrounds, but the three main things they all have are a passion for what they do, a good eye, and the ability to work very well on a team. Those three things will take you far.
VIRGINIA: What kind of education would you recommend to someone looking to get into digital lighting?
MOHIT: Having a background in art helps. There are many schools out there that have great fine arts or graphic design programs. I don’t concentrate on certain tools or certain processes as much, though, because those are things we can teach. It’s hard to teach someone how to light well because that comes from having that good eye. The artistic sensibility in terms of color and composition is what we look for. That can come from school or from being a good painter or photographer.
VIRGINIA: What has been your favorite project?
MOHIT: My most favorite project to work on so far has been Tangled. It was a lot of hard work, but putting out a great product that was well received has been very satisfying.
VIRGINIA: What do you think are the most notable changes in the animation industry in the past several years?
MOHIT: Animation production has become more global. Every major studio has smaller studios set up all across the globe, and every developing country is creating animation. The bottom line, however, is that we still need great stories with compelling characters to be successful, so that has remained the same.
As far as look and lighting goes, technology has progressed and keeps progressing so that we are able to do more and more in real time. This affects our production pipeline. We used to have a very linear pipeline: You would model something, do layout, animate it, and then you would light the shot. Now we’re able to incorporate real-time preliminary lighting well before the final rendering stage, allowing us to get feedback from directors about the camera and lighting much earlier in the process.
VIRGINIA: Thank you, Mohit, for taking the time for our interview. It’s been a pleasure to hear about your experiences as the Director of Look and Lighting at Disney.