Interview with Pixar's Dominic Glynn

Pixar's latest movie, Ratatouille, opens in Australia today. To celebrate Pixar in all its geeky goodness, we interviewed expat Aussie and Pixar Image Mastering Engineer Dominic Glynn on his job at Pixar, the tech tools he uses at work and play, and of course how he landed a job with probably the most cutting edge animation studio in the world.

Read on for the full interview including Dominic's tips for working with images, and why his car doubles as a UFO. :)

Oh, and don't forget to enter our Ratatouille competition - it closes tomorrow!dom_pixar.jpg

LH: The animators in the audience will kill me if I don't ask this one - how did you get the job at Pixar?

I've been working in the motion picture industry for a few years, starting out in Australia with live-action visual effects, R&D and colour science. I migrated those skills to the animated feature domain while living in Canada and via some high profile research and publications, I came to the attention of the smart folks at Pixar.

There are a plethora of amazing technical roles in movie making. The larger studios and vendors tend to have scale/profits that benefit from specialist optimisation and/or heavy R&D.

LH: Your bio says that an image mastering engineer designs numerical models of human colour vision. Can you explain this in a little more detail?

A more broad title would be Colour Scientist. Kind of a mash up of physics/math/physiology/optics/cognitive-sciences.

When it comes time to exhibit our movies (in the cinema, on TV etc) we're really just generating/modulating light. Although I can accurately measure & quantify light, it doesn't really become _colour_ until you perceive it. Quantifying perception seems a little amorphous for engineers but there are ways to express these relationships between light/energy/perception and end up with a useful bunch of numbers. Downstream of that, there's a whole universe of mathematics that can be applied (and borrowed from unrelated fields) to invent and optimise things like compression, watermarking, and calibration. Many of these optimisations exploit weaknesses of human colour perception - things like resolution limits, colour difference sensitivity, time-variant chromatic adaptation and other similarly intelligent-sounding poly-syllabic "stuff" ;) There are many parts of the movie-making pipeline that benefit from a little tune up, such that all departments are working in "chromatic sychronisation" and getting the most from their combined tools and technology. I spend a large quotient of brain-space ensuring we're using the bits to their optimal capacity as image data flows down from the texturing/shading/lighting departments all the way to the final distribution/exhibition media (film, DVD, digital cinema, BluRay) I'm also involved with the laser transfer of our digital images to 35mm film negative.

LH: You sound like you have an enviably rounded life - from Pixar to being a foodie through to playing baroque violin. Does technology play much of a role in your life outside of work?

You bet - I'm a gadget freak at heart. I have a weakness for anything small, waterproof, wireless and rechargeable. My car is battery-powered hybrid. It has voice recognition, satellite nav, a camera, RFID proximity entry, touch screen and plenty of bluetooth connectivity. It's like driving a UFO - passengers often get disturbed because it runs silent and responds to voice commands.

Many of the dedicated hardware devices that I used to rely upon are now virtualised. The chromatic tuner for my violin is now a software app on my laptop, my books are delivered over the wire and read on e-paper.

LH: What tech gadgets or toys do you use on a day to day basis, and why?

The new breed of small LED digital projectors are fascinating. I like the idea of carrying a battery powered, 60-inch TV in my pocket. Every wall is a viable projection surface - the bedroom ceiling, the kitchen floor. And if you connect a video iPod you can even watch big-screen cinema in a tent! That's some luxury camping :)

The iPhone is another device that makes a regular appearance in my day. Finally I don't need to carry a laptop to be richly networked, and beyond the immediate functionality of the device, I truly admire technology that resets one's expectations of what's possible.

LH: My understanding is that most animation studios these days are using Linux of some flavor - can you give us a brief rundown of what the backend grunt and your own desktop have on them?

We have our own team of Linux gods in-house who take the standard distros and customise/augment/hack many elements to meet the studio's demanding needs. Sometimes it involves integrating build/update tools to "support the support" (there are 950-ish people on campus, most with 2+ computers) ... sometimes they're hacking a kernel extension to use network/disk/memory more efficiently on the huge renderfarm.

20% of my day is Linux, 1% Windows, and the rest is OSX so I'm primarily a mac user, though probably not a mainstream mac user. I'm hacking low level math, image processing & GPU tricks. To me, the mac is functionally very similar to the linux machines (particularly now that they use Intel architectures) and while I readily share code between platforms I really appreciate the development tools, robust drivers, slick interactive experience and development community that has sprung up around the last few generations of Apple computers. There's little I can't do on the mac.

LH: Are there any particular tech tools or software that you use every day because they help you get organised or do what you need to do quickly? If so please share your lifehacking tip or tool for the benefit of lifehackers everywhere. :)

My home office is paperless. When I receive snail-mail (bills, statements, letters etc.) the first thing I do is drop them on my wireless scanner then throw them straight into the shredder. Multi-page PDFs are automatically generated on my computer, they're compact high-resolution colour documents and look just like the original, automatically touched up, straightened, de-dusted and here's the awesome part - they have a hidden layer of text embedded via OCR. I can search, locate, sort and print just about any piece of correspondence I've ever received with fewer than 10 keystrokes. And offsite backups are a breeze, which would be unimaginable for the paper equivalents.

LH: Getting a little *more* techy - do you have a favourite add-on/mod or even just a keyboard shortcut you'd care to share which would be of interest to other working with imaging?

If you're using OSX ... there are a couple of things to help you hack images. Ctrl-Option-Apple-8 will invert the colour palette of your whole desktop which is cool for coding in the dark, or checking the quality of shadow regions in your images/photos. MenuShade is a great 3rd party add-on which gives great control to darken the menu bar in OSX. It's particularly helpful when using image editing applications that don't have a full-screen mode.

LH: I'm hanging out to see Ratatouille. What's your favourite bit of the movie - either because it's fun or because you're technically proud of it?

Ratatouille is printed on a beautiful filmstock which has phenomenal performance in the darks. We really raised the bar with this movie, squeezing the brightest/darkest/richest/most-colourful images possible from film. I think the movie speaks for itself, Brad and the story/edit team have delivered some phenomenal pacing... the climax of the film will have you splitting your sides laughing.I still crack up every time I see it :)

Thanks to ACMI - hosts of the Pixar: 20 years of animation exhibition - for setting up this interview for Lifehacker. :)

Editor note - I saw a preview screening of Ratatouille over the weekend. It was great fun, and technically so impressive. I'd rate it right up there with Toy Story as one of my favourite Pixar movies. Make sure you catch the short beforehand too - it's called Lifted and was the directorial debut of 7-time Academy award winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom.


    Thank-you for a fascinating interview. Dominic seems like a (couldn't think of a better word) "far-out" guy, and I loved his Mac screen color inversion tip, as well as imagining his car and office set-ups. I hope Australia learns to love this wonderful rat pic as much as I do.

    Le Dominic ..* Pure Genius and what a smile!

    I know him. Brilliant!

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