Light work - Reflections on shadowy forms

Alfonso illustration Coding sunshine, starlight and shadows, Afonso Salcedo (MS c Computing 2002) creates animated worlds unbound by conventional optical laws.

Imperial: What does a lighting artist do?

Afonso Salcedo: It’s the process of creating the final image you see on screen, the mood, atmosphere and emotional depth that bring life to a specific shot. It’s about the little details, the things that normally go unnoticed but create a world that is believable and that the viewers connect to emotionally.

Imperial: Take me through the life of a project.

Salcedo: Typically you spend some time creating a basic lighting set-up that will work as a draft version for a sequence of shots that happen in the same set. You then start going into the minute details of individual shots to fulfil the creative vision of the director: the eye highlights, shadows, reflections, fog. In live action, you’re bound by the physical properties of light but in an animated movie everything is created from scratch.

Imperial: What’s been your most challenging project?

Salcedo: Every project I’ve ever worked on seems insanely daunting and impossible in the beginning, and so easy and effortless a month after it’s done.

Imperial: What inspires you?

Salcedo: Anything and everything. Day to day I am constantly observing and appreciating all the little details around me: how a museum displays artworks, how a performing artist composes their show, how a photographer captures a story with just one image. It’s grabbing inspiration from everything you see. You learn how to create a space in your mind where you are open to really looking at the world around you.

Imperial: Were you a typical computing student?

Salcedo: I don’t think so. I didn’t want to do any programming or technical computing things, so I had a bit of a hard time keeping myself motivated. I loved London though, and Imperial was perfectly placed to be surrounded by incredible people, the best of the best. During the summer, I would always go to the Royal Albert Hall to watch the Proms for inspiration. That was my creative escape from computers at the time! When I graduated from Imperial I went to Pineapple Studios and danced every day. That helped me connect with the creative and artistic side of London, and helped me fall in love with the city once again.

Imperial: What do you think the future holds for animation?

Salcedo: The technology keeps evolving at such a pace that live action and animation are not that different anymore. It is becoming way more accessible, so it will be great to see new movies and ideas from all corners of the world: competition will only drive new ideas forward. I wish animated films could be considered for cinematography Academy Awards.

Imperial: What film are you most proud to have worked on?

Salcedo: Working alongside a creative team of five others, I was the creator of the It Gets Better... Love, Pixar short that became a viral sensation on YouTube with more than 1.3 million views. I had this idea that with the power of the Pixar brand we could create something honest, genuine and heartfelt that would hopefully influence a lot of kids and families worldwide, and bring hope and optimism to anyone who’s ever been bullied.

Imperial: Do you think film makers and studios have a social responsibility?

Salcedo: Not necessarily. I think film has the power to influence social responsibility and to educate people, but it should also be pure entertainment – almost a means of escape from the reality of day-to-day life. I think there’s space for both, and I’m glad that studios like Pixar aren’t afraid of doing both.

Read more of the interview and see some of Afonso’s work.

Illustration by Andrew (and Rew) Wilson