Lighting the Heart

Eman Abdul-Razzak

Pixar Animation Studios

In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews Pixar Animation Studios’ Eman Abdul-Razzak
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Over the past 20 years Pixar has become perhaps the most celebrated animation studio in the world, praised for the emotion and depth it layers into its visuals and storytelling. I spoke with Lighting Technical Director, Eman Abdul-Razzak about how nuanced light is not only essential the success of the studio’s movies, but also helps her to find a spiritual awareness that transcends her creative process.

From poetry to psychoanalysis, and physics to photography, the notion, meaning and importance of ‘light’ has fascinated thinkers, artists and spiritual seekers for millennia.

“In your light I learn how to love”, wrote Rumi, among his numerous explorations of the subject, while Carl Jung said: “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

The quotes are countless, and can be drawn from every conceivable corner, but it is perhaps spirituality that focuses on light in its deepest, most profound, most penetrating form – with physical, metaphysical, metaphorical and energetic implications.

In some traditions it represents the divine, in others it might stand for purity, truth, wisdom, guidance, hope, enlightenment, and much more. However we understand or interpret it, light is a constant in our lives, and vital to our existence and experience – though most of us are surely oblivious or under-appreciative of its profound impact on both our worldly and spiritual experience.

For those who work with light on a daily basis, however, there must be a different level of awareness, observation and perception.  This was certainly the impression I got from Eman Abdul-Razzak – Lighting Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studios in California – who told me about the layers she experiences through her work with light.

“In one way, I really just enjoy lighting – it’s fun to me. And I love being able to convey a message and a story,” she said.

“But it’s also about Tawakkul (perfect trust and reliance on God and His plan). Working with light reminds me that there is a God-based purpose for everything. Whenever I think of that, it reminds me that I’m giving people something they can think about and reflect on. Even if it’s a story that might not be overtly spiritual or religious, the lighting gives life to that story, and gives people the opportunity to feel something, or to ask themselves questions.

“Working with light reminds me that there is a God-based purpose for everything. Whenever I think of that, it reminds me that I’m giving people something they can think about and reflect on.”

“This is one way I feel my work connects with spirituality. Light can be an invitation to reflect.”

Invitations to reflect

Pixar is perhaps the perfect match for Eman’s appreciation and application of light, given the studio’s reputation for producing emotionally engaging and thought-provoking animations which offer their own invitation for reflection.

Home to some of the best -loved and most iconic movies of the past 25 years, Pixar boasts the likes of Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles among its titles, including more recent hits such as Coco, Soul, and Turning Red. Between them, these films have given children and adults alike cause to meditate on themes such as emotional awareness, community, coming of age, self-worth, family, purpose, loss and love to name but a few. Shedding light on sometimes complex topics, issues and emotions that can help us learn about ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Despite the clear alignment with Pixar, however, Eman was originally destined for a very different career before finding her affinity with animation.

“Art has kind of always been in my life, and it's something I've always appreciated. When I was at college I had different career paths that I was considering, but the main one was architecture. I actually had considered that for a while, and it wasn't until later down the line that my oldest sister actually introduced me to the idea of possibly going into animation.

“I hadn't thought of that before, but I soon realised that I actually did much prefer it  over architecture, and there were two main reasons for that. Firstly there was the story aspect – how everything that you work on is producing a story and giving a message. And the other aspect was the artistic aspect of it. Animation is geared more towards fine arts, I think, while architecture is more geared towards design. And my heart was going more towards fine arts.”

It wasn’t until taking up an undergraduate internship with Pixar that Eman discovered her passion for lighting.

“Before I did that, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to specialise in,” she explained.

“There was character design, you could do layout and things like that, but the thing that really spoke out to me the most was lighting. And I think one big reason is because lighting can have such a huge effect on mood and how you can perceive an image. You can watch something, and just the colour of it and how the lighting interacts with the characters, can help you understand a feeling that the story is trying to convey. So that spoke out to me a lot.”

“Lighting can have such a huge effect on mood and how you can perceive an image.”
Drawn to the light

Hearing Eman talk about mood, and her appreciation for what light can give us, reminds me of a quote by Peter Sanders – the celebrated photographer of the Muslim world. He said in an interview some years back, “Photographers are attracted to light, they are very sensitive to light – physical light. But there is also spiritual light; the light within. I am especially drawn to this spiritual light that emanates from deep inside”.

It made me wonder, what attracts Eman to light?

“It really does help you appreciate the beauty of the world,” she explained. “And that gives a certain kind of inspiration, a certain kind of feeling, no matter who you are or where you are.

“We had a talk from one of the color script artists at Pixar, and he was talking about how sometimes he would just look at images – every day, mundane images – and they would invoke a particular feeling in him, so he would save those images and store them. It’s this idea that a certain lighting, or certain composition can invoke something within you that is pretty much universal. That’s mind-blowing to me. How can one image invoke the same feeling across multiple people? But it means you’re tapping into something special, and that can help you get a message across with a single image.

“This really gives you a kind of wonder about how we are created, and how we are all connected through images, and through light. We can all have completely different life experiences, but we can also be really, really similar, and connect through something so simple. I don’t understand how it happens, but it’s amazing, and really makes you appreciate the work you're doing, and the importance of light.”

“We are all connected through images, and through light. We can all have completely different life experiences, but we can also be really, really similar, and connect through something so simple.”

Thinking about this shared emotional connection to light returns me to the interpretation of light from different spiritual traditions – especially the tradition that I embraced 20 years ago: Islam.

In the Qur’an we are told repeatedly that there are ‘signs for those who reflect’, and are also taught that ‘God is the light of  the heavens and the earth’. Reflecting on light connects us to something higher; something bigger. It is a constant reminder of something profound, and our  place within that. Light is a spiritual experience. It illuminates, guides, enlivens, beautifies, inspires, nourishes, and so much more. It generates wonder and gratitude for who we are, where we are, and the potential of what we can do, and helps us to see the other reminders that are constantly around us.

Once your eyes have been opened to these reminders you can notice them everywhere. Perhaps it’s hearing the birds sing. Maybe it’s in our ability to solve a problem, develop creative ideas and solutions, or write some code that works perfectly for its purpose. Or maybe it’s having somebody tell you that you’ve made a difference to their lives.

It reminds me of a talk I heard on the topic some years ago by American scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. He said: “Life itself is a spiritual experience … We’re having a spiritual experience right now by simply being conscious … You don’t need to jump out of a plane to have a spiritual experience. You don’t need to be on Mount Kilimanjaro to have a spiritual experience. It’s right here and  right now. It’s simply being aware – being conscious.”

Speaking with Eman, it seems that light provides her with that awareness. Her awareness of its beauty and power not only helps to connect her to something bigger, something higher, but it surely helps to elevate her work, its impact, and her own experience along the way.

It’s a beautiful reminder to be mindful about the work we do, and conscious of what it is and what it means – both to ourselves and to others. Reflecting on the spiritual nature of simple things can truly transform our work and our appreciation of it, taking our daily undertaking from humdrum to extraordinary; an act of devotion that invites others to reflect in their own way, and find their own illumination.


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