Wonder Women: Danielle Feinberg

This week, we speak to Danielle Feinberg, Director of Photography for Lighting at Pixar about her inter-discilinary specialty, being singled out, and standing up for yourself. Even when people say you can't, you CAN #BeAnything.

Hi Danielle, tell us your origin story!

When I was in 4th grade, one of the dads there offered to teach a programming class. None of us really knew what programming was, this was back when the very first Apple computers were out. It was in a language called ‘logo’. You basically write lines of code and a little icon of a turtle drives around the screen. Everywhere it drives, it draws a line. Both of my parents are very artistic, they’re both architects. So they had me and my sister in art classes from the very beginning. So it was perfect that the first programming I ever did created pictures. It was very compelling to me that I could write lines of code which is in the math and science world but what came out of it was a picture.

When I went off to college I thought I was going to do mechanical engineering, but then I looked at the classes and thought ‘Oh actually, I’m not that interested in some of this stuff. Well, I’ll just take these Computer Science courses because they count towards engineering requirements and that will buy me some time.’ About two weeks in I was like ‘Wait, why am I not majoring in Computer Science? This is something I already love.’

I ended up studying Computer Science at Harvard and there was one Computer Graphics class that I could take. The professor showed these very old Pixar short films from the late 80s/early 90s. It was ‘95 when I saw these and fell in love with it. There weren’t obvious jobs in computer graphics then, you could maybe do special effects. There were a couple television ads and some short films that you could only see if you went to Spike & Mike’s animation festival. It wasn’t how it is now where you just go on iTunes or youtube or anywhere online to see animated films.

A couple months later, Toy Story came out which was the first feature length computer animated film and I realised there are actually real jobs in this. I was just transfixed. It was so clear to me that that was exactly what I wanted to do.

About 6 months after I graduated, I ended up applying to Pixar. Got hired on ‘A Bug’s Life’, Pixar’s second animated film. On that first film, they needed some help doing lighting. I fell in love with lighting because it’s the last creative step in the process. For me, it’s kind of where the world comes to life - your brain can grapple with it being a place that you might be able to step into. That sort of transformation moment is pretty addictive to me. I love that.

On the movie ‘Wall-E’, I got promoted to Director of Photography for Lighting. I subsequently directed the lighting for 'Brave' and now am working on our Fall 2017 fim that’s called ‘Coco’. I can't say much yet but the visual possibilities are insane so it’s going to be a really fun one.

Did you ever feel like there was a moment where you were discouraged from pursuing this career but believed in yourself and went ahead?

In my experience, it’s a bit more of all the little moments where you’re discouraged. When someone’s trying to tell you “You’re a girl. You can’t do it.” or “You don’t belong here.”

Did that actually happen? Like this is a ‘guys-only’ field?

When I was in college, for one of the classes I took we had to be in the science center using the special computers there. In the assignments, there were little hidden twists and turns that you have to figure out in order to successfully complete the program and the projects of the week. These guys would all team up and I would hear them say “Oh! I figured it out! This is what you have to do...”. I’m over on the other side of the room and I knew instinctively they weren't ever going to tell me that stuff.

Even for straight forward things, I would go over and ask them and they literally wouldn’t even acknowledge me. There are things like that that definitely made it harder to persevere.

At the end of that class, we had to do a group project. When I had to find a partner it was like standing on the school ground getting picked for teams and you’re the last kid standing there. I’m had to send an email out to the whole class and ask if anybody needed a partner. It was this very public declaration of being an ‘other’. In the end, this guy who became my partner ended up being one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked with on a project at Harvard.

Can you survive that? Yea, absolutely. It sucks, but it’s not something catastrophic that happened. But a series of those things happening, makes you question: ‘Is this really where I want to be?’ ‘Is this the environment I want to be in?’ I know that women or all people of diversity are sitting there asking themselves.

The thing was, starting from 4th grade, I loved programming and I loved making pictures with programming. I already loved it. So if people were telling me I shouldn’t be doing this or that I was an ‘other’ that was more of an annoyance that I had to ignore. I had great friends and a great support system outside of that class. When I love something I am pretty much a dog with a bone about it. I’m not going to let that go. It was something I was willing to persevere through.

How would you help other women persevere? If you could give them a superpower, what would it be?

For them to be able to see through when someone is saying something that’s fact and when they’re just saying what they think. I think as women we want to be really sure that what we’re saying is true but there are other people in the world that just trust what they think and so they say it as fact which makes us shrink and our voices get smaller. We get looped right into a place of imposter syndrome. Should I really be here? Am I smart enough to be here, am I qualified to be here? If we all had the superpower of ‘Oh no, that dude is just kind of spouting his opinion.’ Suddenly you go oh I don’t actually think he’s right and I am going to state my opinion and I’ll do it in a way that feel authentic to me. Ultimately, that is going to be better for everyone involved in a project because two people’s experiences and ideas about something are going to come to something greater. So that’s the superpower - see through the veil of mistaking confidence for knowledge.

What’s something fun that you’ve done recently that you’re excited about?

A year ago in January I went to Burma also known as Myanmar and did a 3 week photography trip with this woman that shot for National Geographic for years. We were on a boat on a river where tourists don’t ever go and we would just say ‘That looks like a cool town!’ and pull over.

The first time we stopped, our translator asked when was the last time they had visitors and they said “Oh 2006!” We visited all these amazing very rural towns along the river. Some may have had a generator for lights at night but many didn’t. There were all dirt roads, cows and pigs wandering around, lots of agriculture, and the most lovely people ever. The kids would run through the streets following us because they were just fascinated by this pack of white people that had arrived in their town. We would shoot pictures of them and show them on the back of the cameras and the whole pack of kids would roar with laughter and delight. 

The whole experience was also a wonderful reminder that all this stuff and technology we have is great but doesn't equate to happiness. The people we met there live an incredibly simple life by our standards but were some of the happiest people I have ever been around. It was such a cool thing to see. It was an amazing experience and such a good lesson.

What’s a lesson you’d like to remind yourself every day?

Making movies is hard and it gets stressful. I have been trying to focus that everyone is really trying their best.

Even those guys in Computer Science class who were being jerks, maybe that’s an misinterpretation… maybe they just had no social skills and they couldn’t deal with a girl coming to talk to them. Or maybe they were beaten up on their whole life and this was the one time they could say ‘Man, I rock at this and I’m just going for it without stopping for anyone!’.

Everybody is just really trying their best 99% of the time. When things go a little bit sideways, they don’t actually mean any ill will. It’s been so nice when framing it that way because you end up having a lot more compassion for people and a lot more patience.

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