Sharon Calahan

Mon 16th Apr 2012, by Paul Hellard | Peoplestudios

CGSociety :: Artist Profile

28 March 2012, by Trevor Hogg


"I’m the lone artist in my family," confesses Sharon Calahan who initially did not intend to become a cinematographer.  "I studied advertising art, illustration, and graphic design.  My first job right out of school was as an art director at a TV station so I immediately got involved with moving images, [and] lighting sets."  While working at PDI, Calahan made a deal with a colleague.  "Graham Walters and I had worked together on a lot of projects; we had a suicide pact that if one of us left we had to take the other one with us."  Walters kept his promise and arranged for Calahan to get a job interview at an upstart computer animation studio he had joined called Pixar.  "The company was fairly small.   Everybody in the building was working on Toy Story [1995] except for the small group doing R&D.   Now the company is 1,200 people or more, we’re in multiple buildings, we’ve got good food, chairs and desks, things that we didn’t have back then."  Even with the dramatic expansion of personnel, the team philosophy, "of making sure the people around you succeed" has remained.



Recalling her time spent as a lighting supervisor on the feature length debut by Pixar, Sharon Calahan states, “Toy Story was a major coup just to finish.  We learned enough to have more confidence in what we were doing on A Bug’s Life [1998] and were able to take it further.”  Toy Story 2 [1999], which was originally planned to be a direct-to-video release, had a short production schedule.   “Our goal was to make it look noticeably better than Toy Story and not to kill everybody doing it.”  Simulating the various interactions of light and water was not the only creative issue for Finding Nemo (2003).  “That was a charming, beautiful little film to work on,” remarks Calahan who served as the cinematographer for the seafaring tale.  “It was a bit of a minimalist approach in that some of the sets were only the water.”   A major question which needed to be addressed was, “How do you create a sense of space, volume and direction when you have little to work with?”  A key ingredient for making the culinary world of Ratalouille (2007) believable was the portrayal of the food.  “I wanted it to be soft, warm, and delicious looking.  I feel really proud about that movie.”

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The most recent offering from Pixar, Cars 2: World Grand Prix (2011) utilizes the expertise of the American lighting specialist.  “The number of sets was a third more than what we had done before and we didn’t have a lot of time to do it in,” reveals Sharon Calahan who was part of a 12 day research trip which visited England, Japan, France, and Italy.  “I had been to all those locations myself; it was helpful in [enabling me to] remember what it felt like to be there.  In London, with all of the grey surfaces and sky, those bright red buses always standout.”  Another memorable place for Calahan was the Ginza District in Tokyo.  “I was in awe at all of the motion, colour, and the bombardment of signage.  We decided to make it over-the-top because that’s what it feels like being there for the first time.”  The fictional Italian Riviera town of Porto Corsa was inspired by Portofino and Monte Carlo.  “In each location we tried hard to be authentic so you feel like you’ve been somewhere like that, even if it’s not literal.”  A nonexistent American Southern town featured in Cars [2006] serves as a contrast point with the international journey segments.  “Radiator Springs is really dusty, faded, quaint, charming and safe.  We made the rest of the world be glossy, urban, hip, exciting and dangerous.”

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“One of the things I tried to use as a unifying element was shiny and illuminated surfaces,” explains Sharon Calahan who also wanted to give each global setting a unique look without it being visually jarring.   “We were constantly thinking of how the weather was changing in each of these locations so it had a distinctive mood.”  Calahan was happy to be reunited with Harley Jessup who was responsible for the production design of Ratalouille.  “After two films of working together we have a wonderful collaboration.”  The reflective surfaces on the sets and the cars required special consideration.  “I was always paying a lot of attention to how the light sources were being designed and built to make sure I would get something really interesting reflecting onto those surfaces.”  The technical challenge had a significant benefit.  “The reflections will break it up for you so you don’t have to modulate the light quite as much.”  A previous experience on a Pixar picture came in handy.   “We definitely used some of the bags of tricks from Nemo on this film, especially, for the underwater sequences.”   The tight production schedule did not allow for the development of technological breakthroughs.  “We spent time refining some of the existing technology to make things more stable or to make things faster or to make it easier to work with or to improve the look.”


Lights are on

Questioned as to how long she spends working on a project, Sharon Calahan answers, “Usually two and a half to three years.” She clarifies, “It seems like an incredibly long time if you’re not in the middle of it but everyday there are decisions to be made, stuff to pay attention to, and work coming up that you have to prepare for; it pretty much drives itself.” Lighting stylized environments does not come easily to Calahan. “Recreating something that feels real is more natural for me.” The cinematographer has a hobby which sees her forsake the computer for the paintbrush. “One time when I was in Wyoming painting some hills, I was puzzling over how the light was cutting through the atmosphere. All of a sudden a light bulb went on, ‘I know how I want to change our atmosphere tool to do this better.’”

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“My philosophy generally is to put the characters in the same lighting environment and then see what’s missing,” reveals Sharon Calahan who applies a slightly different approach when handling action scenes. “I’ll block in roughly where the light sources are but I wait to figure it out completely until I can watch how the shots are cutting in the sequence.” As for the technological trend sweeping the film industry, the Pixar veteran observes, “3D is interesting because the dynamic range is so drastically reduced over normal projection; it’s definitely a challenge to make sure things read and the colours don’t get muddy. As the brightness improves over time it will be less of a concern.”

For Sharon Calahan, great cinematography requires a "strong sense of design and style." She adds, "It definitely has to serve the story well and have an emotional resonance with the audience." Several internationally acclaimed cinematographers standout. "Roger Deakins [Fargo] is somebody whom I greatly admire, Caleb Deschanel [The Natural], and some of the greats like Conrad Hall [In Cold Blood]; they had and have a strong artistic vision that takes your breath away. You can watch the movie with the sound off and be amazed by how beautiful it is." Calahan believes, "Understanding how light works is vital, which is why I paint; it forces you to look closely and understand what’s happening. There’s no shortcut to learning that." The distinction between CG and live action pictures is less obvious nowadays as “movies are becoming more of a hybrid." In regards to how she has been able to survive in an industry that is constantly in flux, Sharon Calahan confesses, "I don’t know. I show up at work everyday, work hard and try to do the best job I can. Fortunately, they keep letting me do it."



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