How Pixar Uses Hyper-Colors to Hack Your Brain

Take the scene where the old ghost Chicharrón dies unremembered in the Land of the Dead. It’s a tear-jerking sequence, but the color palette is still just as wide (though it does lean hard into moonlit blue for this moment). Instead of taking away color, the scene is actually just less bright, lit not by the virtual neon or glowing-orange cempasúchil flowers but by just a couple of lanterns. “That was the way we had to do it on Coco,” Feinberg says, “just because it was a colorful, lively world, but we still needed to elicit that emotion.”

Control the lighting, control the colors, control the feelings. That’s filmmaking. As of this writing, Pixar’s last 23 movies—going back to 1995’s Toy Story—have made a combined $14 billion globally, and that’s not even adjusting for inflation. Kids like them; adults like them. Even in a locked-down, movie-theater-free world, the latest Pixar movie, Soul, grossed $117 million worldwide.

But I’ll tell you a secret: When it comes to wringing emotion from color, Pixar cheats.

In a very special screening room at Pixar’s Emeryville, California, headquarters is a very special screen. It’s not huge, perhaps just 10 feet across, and it’s at the front of a room dominated by a huge control panel studded with five smaller computer monitors and at least two keyboards. The ceiling is covered in felt, and the carpet squares are black instead of the gray that’s standard at Pixar, to keep light contamination to a minimum.

Explaining what comes next requires me to deliver some bad news. Remember the primary colors you learned in elementary school? Red, blue, and yellow, right? So, yeah, that’s wrong. You were supposed to be able to mix those into all the other colors, but that never worked, did it? Blue and yellow were supposed to be green, but you got brown. Red and blue were supposed to make purple, but you got … brown.

That’s partially because subtractive colors reflect some wavelengths of light and absorb others. Mix them together and you absorb more and reflect less. Things get dark. Unless you carefully manage the pigments and the mixing, and you start with the primaries cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—the CMYK beloved of magazine designers.

It’s also wrong because oftentimes people confuse light streaming from a source like a TV or a star with the color that happens when light hits a surface. Those primary-school primaries aren’t the only possible primaries. But even Newton was a little confused about this. His primaries are the specific basic colors he identified in the spectrum he projected from a window onto a wall in 1665, holed up at his mom’s house while a pandemic raged back at his university. You can relate, right? Newton broke whitish sunlight into a rainbow’s worth of colors and chose to draw the borders at seven: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. He called that a spectrum, but of course that categorization leaves out a lot—the “extraspectral” colors like pink or purple or, yes, brown. (Brown is just dark yellow. Shh.)

If you’re reading this on a screen instead of on paper, you’re seeing a concatenation of light generated by red, green, and blue pixels—a whole other set of primaries, not coincidentally at similar wavelengths to those the color receptors in your eyes are tuned to. A little more or a little less of each, and just as with CMYK pigments (and white light or white paper), you can make just about every color that the human eye can discern. Point is, the colors we see aren’t actually mixed from a list of available ones, like buying from a paint store. It’s a continuum of light and reflection, interpolated by the biological sensors of our eyes and the not-totally-understood think-meat just behind them.