Sharon Calahan’s Historic ‘American Society of Cinematographers’ Membership

Sharon Calahan ASC Pixar

History was made earlier this year as Pixarian Sharon Calahan, ASC was the first CG Director of Photography accepted into the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). The ASC was the first organization in the film industry exclusively devoted to honoring professional achievement. Membership is extended only by invitation to those who are actively engaged as directors of photography and have demonstrated outstanding ability. Calahan’s induction into the ASC is a complete game-changer, carving the path for future directors of photography within the animation field.

Finding Nemo Lighting Examples
Lighting example from Finding Nemo

Calahan’s induction comes as no surprise to us as her eye for subtle details has always left in awe – as well as the work of her team. Although every department puts their stamp on the film, there is no greater impact to the finished product (visually) than the brilliant work that Sharon and her team have developed over the years. Her 20-year career (all with Pixar) spans a multitude of Pixar’s most beloved films including – Toy StoryA Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Cars 2 and Ratatouille.

Cinematography Database (UPDATED: Link removed since it is no longer active) recently had a discussion with Calahan to discuss her career, advice for upcoming artists as well as other technical details. Below are a few standout questions, but be sure to read the entire detailed interview on Cinematography Database.

Cinematography Database: Congratulations on becoming a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). That is every real world DP’s dream and now perhaps every CG DP’s dream too! Can you talk about that experience?

Sharon Calahan: Thank you. It was a 20-year-long dream for me as well. I didn’t think that it would really happen, but I set it as a goal to challenge myself to learn and to strive for excellence. It still feels a bit surreal, but it also feels incredibly good and an honor to be part of that amazing organization.

Cinematography Database: On a traditional film shoot, the DP and the gaffer are responsible for the lighting. How does the hierarchy work on a CG movie like Finding Nemo? Who are your lighting crew?

Sharon Calahan: Our lighting crew consists of several leads: a small team comprising complementary skills that help the DP guide the crew, develop the tools, and to keep the work flowing smoothly. We have what we call “master lighters” that do the pre-lighting for the scene. They also help oversee the “shot lighters” who light the individual shots to camera. We also have a technical support crew that we call “lightspeed” and production management support. The lighting artist crew size varies per show, I’ve had as few as 27 artists and as many as 65.

Cinematography Database: For a young aspiring cinematographer should he/she take a traditional film route or learn CG lighting? Using framing and lighting to tell a story is the ultimate goal but there is a lot of technical knowledge to be learned to master both real world lighting and CG lighting.

Sharon Calahan: That is a great question and one that I am often asked. I often wish I had studied filmmaking in school. There is so much to learn in the craft of telling a story with moving images, and a solid foundation there is always a good idea. When a person is creating a drawing, they are not thinking about the pencil (at least not very much). It is creatively liberating to be comfortable enough with the tools so that they are not a hinderance to creating, but the tools alone will not generate beautiful images. When admiring a beautiful drawing, one doesn’t admire the pencil, but the artist. It is essential to also develop the visual skills along with the technical and production savvy to provide the vision to guide a crew to a shared goal. Ideally the cinematography courses of today and tomorrow focus on all of it.

What an amazing honor which has been given to an even more amazing artist – congratulations to Sharon and her many achievements.

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