Distinguished Lecturer Danielle Feinberg

Pixar Animator’s pioneering story as a woman in STEM


Our own Emilee Davis gave the introduction for the Distinguished Lecturer!

Danielle Feinberg addressed topics about animation at the UW-Platteville campus on April 12, 2022. The speech was opened by Senior student Emilee Davis, where she highlighted the films that Feinberg has worked on that won Oscars including “WALL-E,” “Brave” and “Coco.” Feinberg also worked as the Visual Effects Supervisor for the new Disney-Pixar release “Turning Red.”

Feinberg provided the gathered students with a background of her education and how she came to work at Pixar today. Feinberg shared that she had distinct memories of experiences in classes and with teachers who guided her along her journey.

She recalled a Power Mechanics class in middle school. She was the only female student in the class, but she was the only student at the end of the year who successfully got her lawn mower to work. This personal victory caused her to run around with joy, and she reflected on it when writing her college admissions essay.

Once at Harvard and in pursuit of a Computer Science degree, she was talking to an admissions officer who identified her as the “lawn mower girl.” Feinberg acknowledged that perhaps it was not ideal to be known as “lawn mower girl,” but it is important to stand out to people as potential employers or admissions officers.

Once enrolled, Feinberg was taking Computer Science classes, but felt a sense of unbelonging, as only 10 percent of students in her Computer Science classes were women. However, when her professor showed some Pixar short films from the 1980s and 90s, she knew that was where she wanted to go.

Feinberg applied and got hired at Pixar studios and began her animation career working on movies like “Toy Story 2,” “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters Inc.” Feinberg’s work with lighting in “A Bug’s Life” led her to be the director of photography in lighting for the film “WALL-E.” She described her work in lighting as allowing the audience to truly step into the film.

Feinberg told the audience they needed to have courage, passion and be able to defy convention.  

In her own working life, Feinberg defined courage as trying new things in animating and lighting, and described the work that her team did on the Incredibles film.

The team had the courage to attempt to work with the long hair Violet had in the film and how it directly related to her character arc. She told the audience that it is not about how adept they are. She said, “If I work hard at it, I can figure it out.”

Feinberg’s discussion of passion came from a look at the film “Brave.” The animation and lighting team had to come up with an entirely new way to create lighting and vegetation for the scenes. One of the animators coded the project “Wonder Moss.” This coding project allowed for a believable world of vegetation. The code worked to fill in dead and empty spaces with moss and vegetation in a convincing way.

Feinberg described the team’s work in lighting and creating the background as creating a reasonable world so that the audience does not notice the absence of a background.

Feinberg examined the defiance of convention in an analysis of “Turning Red.” “Turning Red” was the fourteenth feature-length film Feinberg has worked on in her career at Disney Pixar. It is also notably the first Disney Pixar movie to have an all-female leadership team. The director wanted the movie to resemble an anime while remaining 3-D.

This meant that the animation and lighting teams had to come up with a new way to use tools and “go graphic.” As they explored new ways to do so, they created different ways for characters to move and act. For example, the all-girl friend group of the main character notably moves in-unison to show the closeness they have as friends.

As something else that defied convention, Feinberg described the technical work that had to be done behind the scenes of “Coco.” They were creating a cityscape for the Land of the Dead, which was a challenge, because they were giving it movement to make it feel alive.

The camera was also meant to fly in between buildings to highlight the different points of beauty within. The city worked to represent the generations and cultural growth over time, starting with some Aztec and older buildings from the bottom, with cranes on the top of the city for new growth.

Feinberg concluded her speech by telling UW-Platteville students, “You all have the power to create a world like no one has seen before.” Feinberg truly highlighted the ability of students to make themselves stand out and shape the world to its highest potential.