We all know the lovable monsters from Disney's Monsters Inc. This time around, the prequel Monsters University takes us back in time when Mike and Sulley met each other in University as young monsters. The story follows Mike and Sulley hating each other's guts until they got over their differences that ignited a friendship that would last for a long, long time.
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Monsters University completely changed the way animated films were lighted up since the first Toy Story film, until its planning stage where director of photography Jean-Claude Kalache asked, “What if we made these lights just work?” Thus, ray tracing was introduced into the filming production of Monsters University. Before its introduction, artists were forced build the reflections and shadows of the models manually. This in itself was a feat for the lights effects previously seen on characters like Sulley. In the past when it came to animations, ray tracing was only used in Cars for a few very specific parts, and that too was described as “clunky” due to the limitations of both software and hardware. The major difference that brought such realism to Monsters University was the way that ray tracing works.
Before ray tracing, the light and shade conditions were mapped out manually by the artists. But with ray tracing, every ray of light and its reflection is calculated in an automatised manner. That isn't much considering the technology was used in films such as Iron-Man and Transformers where partial-CGI environments used ray tracing. Monsters University, however, was more ambitious: the entire film would use ray tracing. Such an idea was always considered as a tedious and time-consuming task. If the first Toy Story started processing its ray tracing with the hardware available back then, it would still be rendering to this day.
The challenge was to keep the processing of each frame down to 20GB. The computers at the render farm of Global Illuminations had only (!) 96GB of RAM available for rendering each frame. The tricky part was that they had to process four frames at once. If anything went a little awry, that would mean an overnight render of the sequence yet again. And it took 2 years for Monsters University to render in total after using over a hundred CPUs. Global Illuminations, however, ironed out the creases as much as they could by introducing simplified no-nonsense light sources into the environment. This gave the artists a lot of freedom to play around with the lighting but at the same time, it holds true to its naturalism. Do the viewers notice such a huge upheaval? Most probably not, as Kalache’s puts it, “successful lighting is silent lighting.”