The Technology of Up

Most Pixar films have had one area of groundbreaking technical achievement. Monsters Inc had a lot of new hair and fur simulations. Finding Nemo debuted a lot of new fluid dynamics. With Cars it was volumetric dust, and Wall-E made some serious advances in emulating light in physical camera lenses.

I wan’t sure what Up would bring to the table, since it used tech from all the previous films. The balloons cluster needed some seriously impressive collision detection, of course. Now the ballons themselves are basically simple spheres, so that’s easy math, but remember that each balloon is on a string. That’s where the hard math comes in.

In many ways, Up’s tech is just the latest generation of previous innovations. For example, a lot of the character and cloth work from Ratatouille has been improved for this film, as has the subsurface scattering from The Incredibles. And of course, the volumetric renderer has been beefed up for some seriously impressive clouds and atmospheres.

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The Art of Up

This is a follow-up to an article on The Story of Up.

One of the challenges that CGI artists and technical directors face is how much detail to add to their characters. Especially for the types of stories that animated films generally tell, too much realism could be a distraction (or even disturbing). But at the same time, not enough detail makes for a blander image and might not be as engaging to audiences.

Pixar’s Renderman is the software that’s responsible for most of the photoreal images in modern film effects, so there’s certainly no technical limit to the complexity that Pixar could be adding to their films, but their art direction has always tried to find a balance. With Up, they’ve gone for an approach which they call ‘simplexity,’ adding detailed textures to simple objects.

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The Story of Up

Pixar is a film company that is redefining family movies, but they are also forcing the rest of us to redefine how we classify movies in general. Up is a perfect example of this. At first glance, it has all the tired clichés of almost every other animated movie: the grumpy old man, the spunky kid, the gravel-voiced Britishy villain, and the dopey comedy relief animal sidekicks. Fortunately, Up is really nothing like any other movie.

Yes, there are many similarities. There have been movies that revolve around the despair and emptiness that a husband feels after his wife has died, and there have been movies where talking dogs perpetrate goofy high-jinks in pursuit of treats – but this is surely the first time that a film truly supports and truly needs both plotlines.

In fact, it’s a great testimony to the storytelling talent behind Pixar’s team that Up takes place in a world where childlessness, eminent domain, and death are painfully real, and yet thrilling zeppelin chases through the trackless jungle are also real. It’s an impressive feat, but not only does the great fun and great depth perfectly mesh, each aspect of the film is strengthened by the others, however incongruous they might seem at first.

Note: This story analysis contains many spoilers.

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