Danielle Feinberg

Boulder, Colorado, native Danielle Feinberg A.B. ’96 (Computer Science) has taken a plunge into a vast animated ocean.

As Director of Photography for Lighting at Pixar, she led the team on Wall•E and is currently working on the 2012 film, Brave.

Previously, she helped to render the aquatic universe in Finding Nemo, from the surge and swell of plant life to the bounce and pop of billions of bubbles.

Feinberg, whose exposure to computer graphics began at age eight with designing spirographs in LOGO, already has a list of future classics to her credit, including A Bug’s Life; Toy Story 2; Monsters, Inc.; and The Incredibles.

With a touch of physics and a lot of finesse, she has gone a long way forward (that’s FD in LOGO) and will no doubt repeat (RT) her success and light the way for others, both real and imaginary.

So, you make artificial light for a living?

We create a three-dimensional world in the computer where I move little icons of lights and have 30 or 40 controls over each light.

Our world in the computer mimics real life, so if I don’t put in lights, the final image that ends up on film would be black.

When did you say, “Hey, I want to work in computer animation!”?

It was fall of 1994 in my junior year; I was sitting in Professor Joe Marks’s computer graphics class. He showed a couple of the Pixar short films one day, and I absolutely fell in love with computer animation. It was like everything I had ever tried to do, taken 10 million levels up.

Are things easier today or more difficult because we can (and want to) do so much more with technology?

I don’t think technology necessarily makes life easier, but it definitely broadens our horizons. At Pixar, it seems like every time we get faster computers or some new algorithm that allows us big efficiency gains, we start trying to put

in something that was previously on the computationally expensive forbidden list—way more detail, fur, hair, cloth, etc. Technology can inspire creativity, just as creativity can inspire technology.

Is an animator’s goal to achieve a perfect simulation of “real life”?

Pixar always strives for believability instead of realism. When you make humans a little more stylized, like we tried for in The Incredibles, the audience can accept them as human being–type creatures, stop comparing them to the real thing, and instead just enjoy the story.

However, there are definitely some things where we strive for more realism, like smoke, fire, explosions, and waterfalls.

All of these things tend to look very fake if they don’t have some of the proper physics behind them. If one thing goes out of whack, the whole thing can look phony and pull the audience out of the story.

Any thoughts about being a female computer science student and now a professional in the field?

Being a woman concentrating in computer science was hard. There were, on average, about 10 percent women in my classes, sometimes less. In my first lead position at Pixar, I was 23 years old and in charge of a team of nine men, eight of whom were older than me. I think some of the things I learned about being in the minority in my computer classes at Harvard helped me navigate my way.

One thing I really missed when growing up with computers was having any role models or mentors that were women. Now I spend time at several different science camps for girls, talking about computer animation and what I do.

How did Harvard prepare you for what you are doing now?

The most valuable thing I learned at Harvard was how to find information on my own, because it was rarely handed to you. I also found that being around so many intelligent and motivated people inspired me to think very big about what I wanted to do in my own life. And finally, I learned the rules of hockey. Surely that will help me for the rest of my life!