But there was absolutely no way to do the number of sequences featuring big landscape shots that Sohn wanted, using Pixar’s traditional process, said Munier. They couldn’t design and render that much landscape in the time they had. And meanwhile, Sohn had fallen in love with the Jackson Valley on his research trips to Wyoming, and basically wanted to set the film there.
Enter the U.S. Geological Survey, which posts incredible amounts of topographical data to its website—including the height above sea level of all of the land features, and lots of satellite images. So Munier and his team tried downloading a lot of the USGS data and putting it into their computer, and then using that to “render” the real-life landscape. And it worked: They were able to take a classic Ansel Adams photograph of the Grand Tetons and duplicate it pretty closely using their computer-generated landscape. And with this data, they could point a digital “camera” anywhere, in a 360-degree rotation, and get an image.
“We ended up downloading over 65,000 square miles of USGS data,” said Munier. This “gave us the sense of scope for [Arlo’s] journey in the film.”
Informative Charlie Jane Anders' piece on the making of the Pixar movie The Good Dinosaur out this Thanksgiving. Because Pixar pushes on the bleeding edge of what's possible with technology, each of their movies reflects a bit of what's just possible during the several years prior to release, though never at the expense of story.
Judging by the trailers, they've achieved a new level of photorealism in landscapes. Just watching it on my retina MBP, some of those trees and leaves and grass look just a penny short of real. If you removed the characters, who are rendered more cartoonish in style, and imagine an environment like this rendered in virtual reality at that resolution (not possible today, but not far future anymore), you can almost see how someone might choose the blue pill.