Careering ahead: interview with animation lighting specialist Afonso Salcedo


Illustration: Andrew (&REW) Wilson

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

What does being a lighting artist involve?

Lighting is the process of creating the final image you actually see on screen, of bringing all the different elements together to create the mood, atmosphere and emotional depth that bring life to a specific shot. It’s also about all the little details, the things that normally go unnoticed but help to create a world that is believable and to which the viewers connect emotionally. It’s guiding their eyes to tell a story.

How did you come to this career – was it a conscious choice, or did you fall into it by accident?

It was more of a conscious choice. I’ve always been fascinated by images, both in photography and film. From watching my dad take photographs when I was a child, through learning everything I could about photography to immersing myself in the imaginary worlds of film, I’d always dream of one day being able to work with similar things.

Take me through the life of a typical project: for example, how do you start thinking about the lighting, what’s the ‘bulk’ of the project, what are the last few tweaks?

I’m constantly observing all the little details around me: the way a light bounces off a building or how candlelight flickers at night. I observe not only these things and appreciate them, but also notice what other cinematographers and artists do – on TV, films or in any kind of art. How does a museum display artwork, how does a performing artist compose their show, how does a photographer capture a full story with only one image? So, in a way, the process never ends. It’s grabbing inspiration from everything you see. You’re constantly working, learning or imagining.

Now when you’re actually working on a film, it completely depends on the project. Is it live action? Is it animation? Am I the DP (Director of Photography) or am I working for the DP? Typically, in a project you spend some time creating a basic lighting setup that will work as a draft version to light a sequence of shots; maybe shots that happen around the same area, the same set. Then you spend some more time shot lighting, where you start going into the minute details that make those individual shots fulfil the creative vision of the director. The eye highlights, or shadows and reflections, the vignettes, the fog and so on. It’s a million different things. In live action you’re bound by the physical properties of light, but in an animated movie everything is created from scratch.

What’s been the most challenging project you’ve worked on?

I’ve been fortunate that each new project has been a completely new challenge. Every project I have ever worked on seemed insanely daunting and impossible in the beginning, and so easy and effortless a month after it’s done. It’s an interesting cycle and something that you clearly should only do if you’re passionate about images, about moviemaking, about storytelling.

What was your favourite project?

I’ve been fortunate to have worked on many incredible projects. I’ll always have a special place for Harry Potter 3 which was my first job in the film industry, even though I was barely doing any sort of creative work. And, of course, any of the Pixar movies I’ve worked on have been nothing short of an outstanding piece of art.

I am incredibly fond of Ratatouille as I think the quality of the light is breathtaking, so organic, so painterly. And the same thing for La Luna, a short film that I adore with all my heart.

What film are you most proud of?

It’s really hard to answer this but Toy Story 3 is one of my favourites, even though I still cry every time I watch Up or revisit La Luna, which is so full of heart.

Working alongside a creative team of five others, I was also the creator of the It Gets Better... Love, Pixar short that became a viral sensation on YouTube with more than 1.3 million views. When the It Gets Better movement started I immediately wanted to be able to participate in it. I had this idea that with the power of the Pixar brand we could really create something honest, genuine and heartfelt, that would hopefully influence a lot of kids and families worldwide, and bring hope and optimism to everyone who’s ever been bullied in school.

I proposed my idea to Pixar and it quickly raised a ton of support from co-workers, friends and everyone I could have hoped for. The executive team gave us support for our project and alongside a team of amazingly talented co-workers and an incredible editor, we created that short video that was really well received everywhere. To me, that was definitely one of the moments I’ve been most proud of in my career.

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Have you ever disagreed with a director?

Of course. I think it’s bound to happen. It really depends on the kind of project it is and how much space there is for you to talk about your differences. Typically, if you’re a lighting artist, you’re also bound to bring the director’s vision to life. So, even though you may disagree, you’re there to realise his or her vision – that’s the nature of things. There’s usually room for compromise and the beauty of it is that everyone’s there to bring their best work to the table, so every opinion is usually heard and considered.

Your first job was with London-based Framework. Did you find London an inspiring place to work and why did you move to San Francisco?

I did and I actually miss London quite a bit. But I’d been in London for six or seven years, between study and work, and eventually I decided that I needed to go on an adventure. And as I always had this thing about moving to San Francisco, one day I literally woke up, quit my job, sold everything I had, packed two bags and moved here.

What inspires you?

Life. Anything and everything. A random conversation with friends or strangers. Nature. Hiking in the middle of nowhere and camping in the wilderness. Anything art. A museum. A concert. A painting. A photograph. I can literally find inspiration in everything and that’s the beauty of it. Learn how to create a space in your mind where you are open to really looking at the world around you and your imagination will run free.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently finishing work on my last DreamWorks project, Rise of the Guardians.

Tell me more about your biographical film Laura

Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to create my own films, bring my own vision to life and, hopefully, create something that has an emotional story.

Laura is a biographical documentary that I’m doing slowly, not only as a personal exercise in filmmaking but as a multi-generational story of family and love. It’s about a 85-year-old Jewish grandmother who lives in Florida who raised an incredibly united family.

It’s more of a personal thing than a documentary but hopefully it’s the start of something great. More news to come in the future, I am sure.

What’s your favourite film, and why?

This is one of those lists that I am constantly changing, updating, thinking about. I do have to say that the list always has several films that will always stay there no matter what. Those films that have inspired me in such a way that they changed some part of me and gave a lot of meaning to my creative life.

2001, A Space Odissey. Nothing, to this day, can beat the quality of the image compositions, the emotional depth of every single frame of the movie. You can literally pause the image at any point of this film, and everything is perfect. The lighting, the composition, the colors. Everything.

Tree of Life. It’s breathtaking. With mostly natural lighting, beautiful camera work and cinematography. It really inspired me.

Requiem for a Dream. The last half hour might possibly be one of the most breathtaking sequences in cinema history. Literally, breathtaking.

Magnolia. Again, has one of those most beautiful moments in cinematic history. It’s the perfect visual representation of life. With music. With images. Beautiful, stunning.

All About My Mother. Masterpiece by Almodovar. I can’t watch this movie again and again and I just hope that one day I will be able to make a film that uses color and composition to this effect.

Who’s your favourite Director?

Similar answer to the previous question. But here’s my favorites that I constantly look up to for inspiration, admiration and respect:

Kubrick. Almodovar. Lynch. Aronofsky. Tarantino. PT Anderson. Mallick. Altman.

Illustration: Andrew WilsonWhat or who has been your biggest career influence?

Definitely everyone I have met at Pixar. I have never been in a place where I was surrounded by the most incredible mix of artists of all kinds, with all different backgrounds and passions and neverending curiosity for the world around them.

And of course, my parents, sister, and now also my partner, who have always never stopped believing in me and in all my crazy decisions in life :)

Favourite photographer?

Trust me, same as in film. This is incredibly hard, but this photographer has had the same influence in me since I was a kid, so here goes:

Sebastiao Salgado. I can literally stare at each one of his photos for ages. Incredibly powerful.

Tell me about your time studying at Imperial – what did you enjoy, were you a “typical” computing student?

I don’t think I was a typical computing student. Even though I was doing a masters in computer science, I knew that 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 and I met some really amazing students, the best of the best.

Also, during the Summer I would always go to the Royal Albert Hall to watch some of the BBC Proms for inspiration. That was my creative escape from computers at the time ;)

And of course, what do I do once I graduate from Imperial? I go to Pineapple Performing Arts School in London and dance every day for a long time. That helped me connect with the creative and artistic side of London and it helped me fall in love with the city once again.

Tell me about your professional plans for the future?

Definitely make some of my own things for a while. This will be my last month at DreamWorks, so I will be working on my own live-action projects for a while. I’ve always wanted to work on a stop-motion film, but haven’t had the opportunity yet, so maybe some day that will come.  And of course, if anyone reading this wants to collaborate on something feel free to hit me up by email. Would love to hear any ideas :)

As for the future, we’ll see. There’s some opportunities brewing for 2013 that could possibly be very exciting, but you never know. Right now, just keep enjoying life, keep creating new things and learn a lot.

What do you think the future holds for animation?

It’s very interesting what’s happening right now. The technology keeps evolving at such an outstanding pace, that live-action and animation are actually not that much different anymore. I wish Animated films could be considered for cinematography Academy awards for example and I hope we get to a day when we can.

There’s a lot of opportunities arising around the world, and the technology is becoming way more accessible, so it will be great to see what new movies and ideas come out from all corners. Competition will only drive new ideas forward, so it’s all very exciting.

Do you think computer animation will continue to dominate, or will more traditional/ classic hand-drawn films come have a renaissance?

I hope there will always be a place for traditional hand-drawn films. There’s something so magical and organic about those movies, and also stop-motion films, that I hope we never lose. Studio Ghibli in Japan does a magical job at creating pure art and I hope more and more films from other studios will keep getting the recognition and audiences they deserve.

Having watched the It Gets Better... Love, Pixar film for The Trevor Project, do you think film makers and big studios have a social responsibility?

Not necessarily. I think film has the power to influence social responsibility and educate people, but it should also be pure entertainment, as a means of escape almost from the reality of day-to-day life. I think there’s a space for both and I am glad that studios like Pixar Animation Studios aren’t afraid of doing both. It’s all about telling amazing stories, that inspire people, entertain people and if that makes them smile and happy for a few minutes of their day, then that’s already quite a worthy accomplishment.

Illustrations by Andrew (&rew) Wilson

This article first appeared in Imperial Magazine, Issue 38. You can view and download a whole copy of the magazine, from


Kerry Noble

Kerry Noble
Department of Surgery & Cancer

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