“My parents taught me that if I love something, to go after it. I loved math,science and code. It was clear from my peers and other that these weren’t things girls did but I did them anyways because I loved them too much to stop. Luckily, it has worked out very well!” - Danielle Feinberg
This week’s featured woman in tech is Danielle Feinberg. You’ve probably seen her work on the big screen without knowing it. She’s a director of photography at Pixar, where she’s designed the lighting - yes, animated movies have lighting - for movies like A Bug’s Life (1998), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and Brave (2012).
We chatted with her about how she learned to code, what a typical day at work is like, her favorite projects and advice she’d give to inspire another girl to code. Not only is Danielle an inspiration to all Girls Who Code out there but we’ve also been inspired to re-watch all of the Pixar movies she’s worked on!
Q&A with Danielle Feinberg:
What do you do at Pixar?
My title is Director of Photography for Lighting, which really means I direct the lighting for our films. We build this 3D world inside the computer and then we actually add little lights in there. So, I have icons of lights that I move around in the 3 Dimensional world. If it’s sunset, I add a light that’s the sun and color it orange to get a nice purply-blue light. I have control over the shadow, the color, the atmosphere, the quality of light.
So you really bring the world to life?
Yes! Well, I think so anyway. I’m sure every department thinks that though!
In your job, how much do you use coding?
There are lots of ways we can integrate code, whether it’s little bits of programming to make your life easier or building plugins that we can use within our software.
I write code to make things repeats automatically so I don’t have to do one thing over and over again by hand. I also use code for more complicated things. The software we use to place the lights is made from millions and millions of lines of code. Each light we place consists of lines of code.
On Finding Nemo, I worked on a light that we call a “Murk” light, a light that mimics how light travels through water. You set how colors change as you get deeper in water because the wavelengths of light drop out the deeper you get. You lose red first, green second and are left with blue, which is why water looks blue. There was code for a light that could do this and I developed it further so that we had more control.
Were you always interested in computers?
When I was in fourth grade, a Dad of my classmate offered to teach a programming class. This was back when you had to use your telephone to dial-in; when the very first Apple Computers came out. He taught a class in something called Logo. We were writing code and a little icon of a turtle would appear and drive around the screen leaving a line wherever he went. So, my first programming experience was making pictures, which totally fascinated me.
The next year, there was an opportunity to take a class in basic programming. I just loved being able to create things. Most of what I was programming was making images because I loved art. They were really rudimentary images. One time, I made a horse racing game, which I was fascinated by because it was the first time I made pictures that moved.
So, coding is creative?
Yes. It’s both left brain and right brain – we write all these lines of code and then a picture or animation appears. That to me is the definition of what magic is.
There are some misconceptions about coding. People think of young guys who go and start programming at an early age and they become hacker whiz kids. I took one class in junior high and one class in high school in programming and it wasn’t like I became a programming extraordinaire. I was using it as an art tool. I wasn’t just sitting alone in a basement coding all day and all night.
Were you always interested in art?
The art came from my family. Both of parents are architects. My sister studied fine art in college. From a very young age my parents had us in art classes of all kinds. My sister and I would spend hours entertaining ourselves making art. Finding a tool like a computer to make art was really cool. It’s another “brush” in my paint box.
What would you say to a girl to convince her to code?
If you like creating things of any kind, then you’ll like coding. Girls don’t realize how much code is around them and the power of it. When you realize the power of code, it’s astounding what you can do with it. The number of social good things that girls do with code is amazing!
If a girl says “coding is dumb,” ask her, “Do you like your phone? What’s your favorite app on your phone? Would you want to make your own version of the app?” Then reply, “If you learn how to code, you can actually do that!”
That brings it home to girls. There’s a lot of propaganda that tells you that you can’t do something. You may not be a hot shot coder, but anyone can learn to code. Make sure that you don’t give up after your first try.
How do you reframe your thinking about obstacles in coding?
When something feels overwhelming, I know I need to go talk to someone about it. I dearly love the process of collaboration and brainstorming. Swallow your pride and get some help and figure it out. The really good stuff happens when you talk to someone else.
Do you think girls are ashamed to ask for help?
I think everyone struggles with this. One of the things I’ve noticed here at work is we have people who struggle with either asking for help all the time or waiting way too long. A skill to work on when you’re getting into the work force is to find the balance between trying to solve things on your own and realizing when you’re just spinning your wheels and it’s time to ask for help. That balance is the key to progressing in your job because it’s the best way to not only learn more ion depth and quickly but also get your work done on time
What does your day-to-day look like?
My day is a combination of meetings and lots of interaction with everyone on the movie and also early in the movie, sitting in my office, listening to music and making pretty pictures to figure out the look of the film. I do a little less coding than I used to do but definitely some. In meetings I’m in discussions about what the movie should look like, what technology we need and who will do what. I strategize on creative stuff and tech stuff. I’ll meet with the directos to hear about their vision and the producer to figure out how to get the movie done on time. I watch other movies for inspiration, as well as photography, paintings and various forms of art.
As we get to the end of the movie, I have a team of 35-40 people and see them every day. We talk about their lighting and what it should look like for the film and about any technical issues they’re having and how to fix them. We have reviews with the director where we show them the work we’re doing. People from other departments are there and might chime in with things like animation being broken or a t-shirt color being incorrect.
It must be nerve-wracking to have people reviewing your work. How do you handle criticism?
I am trying to create the director’s vision so it’s part of the job. Everyone’s goal is to make the best movie possible. When you’ve done your best but the goal is to make the best movie possible, it’s not as hard to get criticism. Any feedback you get, keep in mind that you’re learning and getting better. You’re not a bad person. We all need to be a little less hard on ourselves.
Are there happy accidents in coding?
A lot of accidents in coding are not that happy. I do have an example of one that was incredibly happy for me, though. It was very early on Brave and I was trying to create the look for the forest by putting some mist and lights into it. I hit a bug and the computer completely dropped out all the lights so I was just left with the mist and everything else black. It gave depth to the forest and you got all these cool silhouette of the plants. It was beautiful and I never would have seen it if the computer hadn’t barfed on the code to create that image. Be open to inspiration whenever it comes.
Were you ever told you couldn’t do something because you’re a girl?
My parents taught me that if I love something, to go after it. I loved math,science and code. It was clear from my peers and other that these weren’t things girls did but I did them anyways because I loved them too much to stop. Luckily, it has worked out very well!
What are the things that inspire you?
I do photography on the side. I love art in general and collect art. I love to travel and see different landscapes, people and cultures that is more inspirational to me in a lot of ways.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve created with code.
When I was working on Monsters, Inc., I was in the modeling department where we would build objects inside the computer to create our whole 3-dimensional, animated world. I had a project to write some code for a piping systems sowe could put pipes all over the Monsters Inc. factory. I called it “Pipe-o-matic” and you could specify a line along the factory walls and the pieces of pipe you wanted and it would use the code to put it all together. I created bit of pipe that had different monster-like things, like fang or claws built into the pipe. I was in heaven with how cool and fun it was.