May 29, 2020
Alumni Spotlight: Adam Habib '09
By Jason Ng
Adam Habib ’09 has had a thriving career at Pixar Animation Studios since completing his Production MFA at SCA. His portfolio includes many Pixar animated features including Inside Out, Finding Dory, Cars 3, Incredibles 2, as well as the recently released Onward, where he served as Director of Photography.
Alongside his hefty resume in animation, Adam has also worked on many live-action shorts including the crowd-funded, futuristic sci-fi, Skywatch. But no matter what the project entails, whether it be animated or live-action, Adam always considers himself to be a cinematographer.
Adam joins us to talk about his journey post-SCA, his time at Pixar, as well as how he defines the role of a cinematographer across the different formats of cinema.
You’ve been at Pixar for a decade now, starting as a Camera and Staging Artist and working your way up to Director of Photography. What draws you to animated projects??
I joined Pixar in 2010 about a year after I graduated from USC's MFA program. I joined as a "Resident", which is basically a yearlong internship, and I figured I would pick up all the computer graphics tricks I could during that time, and then return to my path as a live-action DP. But I fell in love with the pure creativity and ability to experiment with the virtual camera. You can set up a 100ft crane shot and if it doesn't work, you can scrap it and shoot it from a camera car. On set, that kind of change would take a huge amount of time, so maybe you don't try as many different ideas. I love how we can make the best camera choice for the story, and not worry about physical logistics (although we do worry about physics). Since 2010, I've worked on six features and several short films. I was the lead camera artist on Inside Out, and Director of Photography on the theatrical short, "Lou". Onward is my first feature as Director of Photography.
What is the role of a cinematographer in a feature animation project?
Similar to a live action, you're there to visualize the story, using different visual techniques to underscore what’s happening for the characters emotionally. We have some additional responsibilities in the Camera & Staging team, as we collaborate with the Art Department and the Sets team to previsualize the environments—how wide should this bottomless pit be? How many lanes for this freeway chase? We are actually helping to build the world as we shoot it. I also work closely with the Editor and the Director to figure out the shot choices and timing of each scene. We work with a storyboard team, and there are sometimes camera choices suggested, but often at Pixar the storyboards are more about discovering the right emotional beat, rather than an exactly planned camera angle.
You recently joined us to screen Onward for our students of the Theatrical Film Symposium class here at USC. What was it like to bring a project you’ve worked on back to USC?
Classes like Don Bohlinger's Script Analysis course in Norris are where I first learned to watch and analyze movies like a filmmaker—and of course it's where my own student films played. It felt incredible and surreal seeing something I'd done professionally on that screen.
COVID-19 obviously disrupted the film and entertainment industry as many productions have been halted to ensure the safety of the crew. How have you and the team adjusted to everything that is going right now?
We're unusually fortunate to be able to continue production using remote workstations, thanks to some impressive engineering from our support teams. That said, like pretty much everyone, we're still adjusting to this new situation, and I'm personally still trying to find ways to be immediately useful in the community beyond filmmaking. I've been volunteering with an organization called East Bay FeedER, which aims to keep restaurants in business by buying meals and delivering them to frontline hospital staff. I get to relive my first job as a Domino's delivery driver.
Though you work primarily in animation, I know you also do work in live-action as well. How does the process differ between the two mediums when it comes to setting the stage for where the camera should go?
The same questions are driving the decision: 1) What does the audience need to know in order to understand / care what happens next? 2) How do I want them to feel about it? Of course we have the advantage of not being burdened by the logistical challenges of camera placement and movement (cranes, etc.), but we still try to ground our camerawork in physics. Often, we spend many hours adding imperfections such as vehicle shake and "keep alive" to help the audience believe and invest in what they are seeing.
You’ve worked on animated features where the characters are elves, humans, fish, cars, and even emotions. Do you think animation has an advantage over live action in this regard where characters come in all shapes and sizes, bound only by imagination?
I don’t know if it’s an advantage, but it certainly keeps my job interesting! What's an over the shoulder look like for a car, a fish, a pair of pants? Sometimes I'm pulling my hair out, but the unusual shapes certainly hone your sense of composition.
How has your time at SCA prepared you for your career at Pixar?
Classes in film history and script analysis taught me to draw from other films and art forms, to be able to analyze why they work and to speak confidently about what ideas and techniques inspire me, and how we can incorporate them into our current project.
What do you remember most fondly about your time at SCA?
My classmates and teachers, many of whom have become lifetime friends. The late-night runs to Fotokem, mornings at SPO, just the amazing privilege of living, sleeping, breathing filmmaking 24/7.
What’s next for you??
I hope I can keep jumping back and forth between animation and live-action, and sharing the things I've learned, as virtual production technologies from both mediums continue to converge.