Nick Bartone says one of the most inspiring experiences of his childhood took place when he was a young kid growing up in Kennesaw.
When he was 9 years old he saw Pixar’s first feature film, “Toy Story,” about the adventures of a group of toys and the friendship between Buzz Lightyear and Woody.
Using groundbreaking technology, the 1995 movie not only paved the way for computer-animated films, it also stirred the imaginations of children around the world. Bartone was no exception. But seeing that movie became a harbinger of his future at one of the most successful animation studios in history — Pixar.
“I was blown away,” said Bartone, now 27. “It was an incredible experience.”
Now Bartone is helping create those same computer-animated movie experiences for children and adults around the world at the studio where it all began. As a lightspeed technical director at Pixar studios in Emeryville, Calif., his most recent work can be seen in theaters today with the release of “Monsters University.”
The film is a prequel to Pixar’s 2001 hit “Monsters Inc.,” about monsters that scare children for a living.
“Monsters University” is set 10 years before the events of “Monsters Inc.” Mike Wazowski majors in scaring at Monsters University. He meets future best friend James P. Sullivan who is almost the opposite of Mike: playful, all-brawn and notably large. James is also majoring in scaring and they soon become enemies in a rivalry that will tear their worlds apart, but ultimately brings them together. Billy Crystal is the voice of Mike, and John Goodman is the voice of James. Steve Buscemi, Dave Foley and Helen Mirren also lend their voices to the cast.
It’s all in the lighting
For the film, Bartone provided assistance and technical training for rendering technology used by animators in the production of computer-generated lighting. Rendering is the process of generating an image from a model by means of computer programs. Pixar develops its own rendering software and technology, which creates the images seen on the screen in their films, including hits such as “Finding Nemo,” “Cars,” “Wall-E,” and “Up.”
“RenderMan is the rendering software that we use and it’s used around many different studios to create their feature films in the industry,” Bartone said. “A lot of us here, especially in the rendering and lightspeed departments, we dig into this RenderMan code and this is how we sort of overcome these technical problems is by tweaking and massaging these RenderMan actions.”
From Kell to SCAD
Before “Monsters University,” Bartone worked on “Cars 2,” “Toy Story 3” and “Brave,” as well as various short films such as “Partly Cloudy.”
The Kell High graduate has come a long way since his days in Kennesaw. He began learning his craft at Savannah College of Art and Design in 2004. Initially seeking a career as an animator, Bartone changed his major to visual arts and received a bachelor’s degree in 2008.
“At SCAD, it was all very new and exciting to me,” Bartone said. “And also kind of humbling as well. You start at these classes, and you’re surrounded by people who are incredibly, amazingly talented who seem like they were born with a piece of charcoal in their fingertips.”
Lighting in particular sparked his passion.
“What I really love about lighting is the art of it,” he said. “Creating the beautiful images is what I really loved and what I really found myself to be passionate about.”
A few weeks after graduation, Bartone saw an advertisement for a lighting internship at Pixar and immediately sent his resume and a 2-minute video clip of his best work. Pixar representatives were impressed with his work and reached out to him.
“I don’t think the recruiter even got to finish her entire sentence before I said ‘Yes! Yes! I’ll do it! I’ll do it!’” said Bartone, who moved to San Francisco shortly thereafter.
After a six-month internship, Bartone was offered a full-time position and he’s been helping to entertain audiences ever since.
“To actually get to come to Pixar and then work with these characters that I saw growing up,” Bartone said. “To actually create a film with them — it was really awesome.”
Creating 3D atmosphere
As part of the lighting department at Pixar, Bartone helps technicians create the film’s 3D atmosphere using models.
“Think of it as kind of like a window into a world, and in this world we have characters that animate, move around and talk to each other. There’s these light sources that we can create in this 3D world, that kind of paint the light and the shadowing and the atmosphere and all that kind of stuff into our images. Then RenderMan … kind of takes a picture of it and then saves that to the computer. … We try to sort of visually describe the director’s intention in the story.”
Pixar has built a reputation for its collaborative working spaces. The studio in California boasts outdoor volleyball and basketball courts, a weight room, an atrium, a common area with ping pong and pool tables and a 150-seat theater, plus larger-than-life size statues of Pixar characters. One of its most renown perks is the cereal bar room, which offers every type of cereal from Wheaties to Cocoa Puffs for free.
Bartone said the studio is a breeding ground for creativity.
“Pixar is very open about us making our workspaces our own. We can really go all out with it if we want.”
Getting the creative juices flowing
Employees can create little huts and houses for their offices out of tents and various other supplies.
“Instead of a cubicle, they have a house. That’s their office space. We can paint the walls. We can get different furniture. We can change the lighting in the office. We can really do almost anything that we want,” Bartone said. “They want us to feel comfortable in our own environment and our own workspace to be able to work as best as we can and to feel in creative harmony with our own space.
“But it’s so cool just to see everybody’s space and how it’s so different, and how each space is unique and that’s sort of celebrated.” Bartone said.
Even after five years, Bartone said working at Pixar is still a surreal experience and a dream come true.
“Every time I walk down the main walkway, I have this huge grin on my face,” Bartone said. “I can’t believe it that I’m actually here.”
Bartone plans on attending the premiere of “Monsters University” today with some friends. He said he loves seeing the films for the first time with a fresh audience.
“These films are very special to people as they were to me growing up as a kid,” he said. “We make really great films and tell really great stories, and they’re very heartfelt. We put a lot of time and energy into that. Anytime someone watches a Pixar movie and it really cheers them up or it makes them feel joy — that to me is really the greatest part of the job.”
To see “Monsters University,” check Page 4D in today’s MDJ for theaters and times.