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Pixar's Bill Cone Illuminates the Magic Power of Light

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(L–R) Nicolás Villarreal, Director of the School of Visual Development; Bill Cone, Production Designer at Pixar, and Chris Carman, Associate Director of the School of Visual Development. Photo by Bob Toy.

Pixar production designer Bill Cone is a little obsessed with light and how it changes the way we see the world. On Nov. 10, a large crowd of Academy of Art University animation students gathered in Morgan Auditorium to listen to Cone discuss what he’s learned about light as a landscape painter, and how he applies that knowledge to his work in film.

one started his career at Pixar Animation Studios as a sketch artist who worked on Toy Story. After watching the film’s art director, Ralph Eggleston, use pastels for his color work for Toy Story, Cone began using the medium for his own color and light studies as a production designer for A Bug’s Life.

“I started going outside to figure out how to get better at it,” said Cone, whose work includes blockbusters Cars, Up and Inside Out. “After six months, I realized nature was teaching me a lot I couldn’t learn at Pixar by just looking at photos of natural things on the Internet.” 

In his presentation, Cone focused on breaking down the way five key elements of natural light impact color: weather, time of day, atmosphere, shadow or light and atmospheric light. 

“When you go back and forth and paint the same view at different times, you realize the shapes are the same, but the value relationships and colors completely change,” said Cone, describing a scene in the Berkeley hills he painted several times, and encouraged students to try similar exercises. “You’ll be amazed by how different it is every time you go out to paint. Everything [is] constantly changing, so you can get an enormous amount of visual input and lighting examples.”

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Pixar production designer Bill Cone. Photo by Bob Toy.

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Photo by Bob Toy.

In addition to his Berkeley landscapes, Cone showed paintings from his annual trips to the Sierras. He described how shadows, atmosphere and light reflected off different surfaces, such as a lake or the sky, change the color of the pale gray rocky formations he enjoys painting there. 

 He also showed slides from Cars to demonstrate how he used light to achieve a range of effects and emotions. “You can design light,” he said. “It’s not just something you imagine. I spent five-and-a-half years on this movie, so I had strong opinions about how things should look.”

He added that using color to symbolize emotions, like red for anger or blue for sadness, is a mistake. “Color is like notes on a piano,” he explained. “It’s not static—it’s dynamic. Color in a movie is more like a symphony. When you’re designing color, you need to think of it like that. Color isn’t stuck in one emotional state.”

During a Q&A session following his presentation, a student asked Cone if he ever feels frustrated by the end result of a film he’s worked on from start to finish. He admitted he does. “But then you realize you’re so close to it, you can’t always be objective,” Cone said. “In retrospect, some of the stuff I thought was so critical wasn’t actually that important.”

Cone said landscape painting continues to inspire him and teach him new things about light: “It’s as if the more I go out and paint, the more I see ideas or motifs or ways of thinking about light that I may not have imagined. Then it’s like you can develop a catalog of ideas that you’ve learned from nature, or from other places, like the ballet or theater, where you also see lots of beautiful light.” 

Cone encouraged students to have the same attitude about learning after they graduate. “It’s important to keep learning,” he said. “You do that through work experience, but also through being curious about things. Film is a great medium for this because each project tends to lead towards discovering things you might not have known before working on it."