What Software Does Pixar Use? Insiders Reveal Their #1 Pick

What Software Does Pixar Use

Walt Disney Animation Studios has Mickey Mouse. DreamWorks has Shrek. And Pixar has Woody and Buzz Lightyear. As one of the most influential animation studios today, Pixar’s beloved characters and acclaimed films have captured the hearts of audiences worldwide. But what makes Pixar’s innovative storytelling possible? The answer lies behind the curtain – with Pixar’s proprietary software and animation tools.

Key Takeaways:

  • Pixar built its own Oscar-winning rendering software called RenderMan to achieve photorealistic animation and special effects.
  • In addition to RenderMan, Pixar relies on animation staples like Autodesk Maya, Houdini, and ZBrush to bring its films to life.
  • Pixar’s custom animation pipeline seamlessly integrates its suite of software to streamline production.
  • Tools like Meander and Hyperion Renderer enable Pixar to push the boundaries of animation with complex crowd simulations and lifelike lighting.
  • By combining pragmatic solutions and cutting-edge technology, Pixar’s software allows its artists to focus on storytelling.

Emerging from the computer division of Lucasfilm in 1986, Pixar has evolved from a high-tech startup into one of Hollywood’s most critically and commercially successful studios. Founded by Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, Pixar’s early years focused on selling hardware and software related to digital imaging. Their proprietary technology included the Pixar Image Computer and animation software that would eventually become RenderMan.

But it was Pixar’s foray into animated shorts and films that transformed the company into an animation powerhouse. Their first short film, Luxo Jr., introduced audiences to an endearing lamp character hopping after a rubber ball. Luxo Jr. demonstrated Pixar’s mastery of computer animation and set the stage for the studio’s first feature film, 1995’s Toy Story.

The fully computer-animated Toy Story revolutionized the animation industry with its expressive characters, engaging storytelling, and brilliant technical achievements. Pixar went on to produce box office hits and critical darlings like Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, Inside Out, and Coco. The studio has earned 26 Academy Awards, including 12 Oscars for Best Animated Feature.

But what software tools empower Pixar’s creative teams to realize their vision? Let’s examine the integral programs animators rely on behind the scenes to bring Buzz, Woody, and countless other beloved characters to the big screen.

Pixar’s RenderMan

Ask any Pixar technical artist about integral software, and one name will certainly top the list: RenderMan. Pixar’s pioneering production rendering software has played a central role in every Pixar film since 1986.

So what exactly does this venerable piece of software do? In simple terms, RenderMan translates 3D scene data into 2D images by computing lighting, shading, and textures. It generates the hyper-realistic renders that ultimately become the frames audiences see in theaters. Let’s break down key features that make RenderMan an animation essential:

Photorealistic Rendering Engine

RenderMan’s advanced rendering algorithms are capable of incredible photorealism with effects like global illumination, subsurface scattering, motion blur, and depth of field. Its first robust lighting model, called REYES (Renders Everything You Ever Saw), handled complex lighting and geometric scenes early on. In 2016, Pixar introduced RIS (RenderMan Interface Specification) to optimize path tracing, streamlining the process of simulating light behavior. This next-gen rendering architecture significantly cuts render times while producing unparalleled realism.

Shading Languages

RenderMan Shading Language (RSL) and Pixar’s Surface Shading Language (PxrSL) give technical directors granular control over surface properties and textures. These shading languages offer a flexible node-based workflow to achieve any material imaginable, from fuzzy monsters to translucent fish to pitted metal robots.

Easy Integration

Seamless integration with leading 3D content creation tools like Autodesk Maya and Houdini makes RenderMan widely accessible. Pixar works closely with other software developers to ensure RenderMan plays nice with animators’ existing pipelines.


RenderMan scales across individual artist workstations, local render farms, and cloud compute providers to grow with production demands. Distributed rendering allows studios to efficiently divide frames among available resources.


After over 30 years of constant improvement, RenderMan delivers rock-solid stability and support studios can count on, especially for long productions. Pixar relies on RenderMan for all its films, so it’s battle tested to handle anything.


In a landmark move in 2000, Pixar chose to license RenderMan to third parties. This shifted Pixar’s focus to a software-based business model in addition to filmmaking. RenderMan is now ubiquitous at visual effects houses like Weta Digital, studios like Disney and DreamWorks, and smaller boutique shops. It remains the gold standard for cinematic excellence.

So in summary, RenderMan’s advanced capabilities, robust toolset, and ubiquity in the industry make it an essential animation solution proven to stand the test of time. No Pixar film would be possible without it!

Other Software Used By Pixar

While RenderMan handles the critical final step of rendering, other software helps Pixar artists build the 3D assets and scenes that ultimately get passed to RenderMan. Let’s explore some of Pixar’s favorite animation tools.

Autodesk Maya

The industry-standard Maya serves as a key animation and modeling workhorse at Pixar. Maya’s comprehensive toolset for modeling, animation, simulation, rendering, and compositing makes it a jack-of-all-trades 3D application.

Specific Maya capabilities that aid Pixar’s production pipeline include:

  • Polygon and NURBS modeling for creating 3D assets
  • Skeleton rigging and keyframe animation
  • Soft body, cloth, and hair simulation
  • Camera and lighting workflows to set up rendered scenes
  • Integration with other software like ZBrush and Photoshop

On recent films like The Incredibles 2, Pixar relied heavily on Maya’s animation toolset to block out complex action sequences involving dozens of superheroes battling it out. Maya’s intuitive timeline interface and caching capabilities accelerated the animation process.


Houdini earns its reputation as Hollywood’s premiere visual effects software thanks to its procedural generation tools.Animators can quickly develop complex physics simulations and particle systems with Houdini’s node-based workflow.

Pixar takes advantage of Houdini’s vast capabilities for effects animation:

  • Efficient smoke, fire, explosions, and other physics FX
  • Powerful fluid simulation tools to create realistic water
  • Point clouds to scatter and instance millions of objects
  • Crowd AI and group behaviors for autonomous characters

For example, Pixar built a custom crowd pipeline in Houdini to handle massive crowds of autonomous characters in films like Brave. Effects like snow, dust, and magical wisps also streamline in Houdini versus hand-animation approaches.


Leading digital sculpting software ZBrush enables Pixar artists to create highly detailed organic models for characters and environments. Its robust toolset excels at creature design and grooming fur.

Key ZBrush perks:

  • An intuitive digital clay sculpting workflow with customizable brushes
  • 3D painting for applying detailed color and texture
  • Dynamic tessellation to increase mesh density locally
  • Decimation master for optimizing models and retopologizing

On Pixar’s Oscar-winning short Bao, ZBrush was critical for achieving the film’s unique textured look and squishy dumpling characters. It adds an organic artistry to assets before they get rendered.


For animating dense crowds in films like Finding Nemo, Pixar built an in-house crowd animation tool called Meander. This clever system handles interactions between thousands of characters, giving each fish unique behaviors and reactions.

Meander enables:

-Simulating group dynamics like schools of fish

  • Automatic collision avoidance between individuals
  • Varied animation cycles so no two characters move alike
  • Integrated pathfinding and AI steering behaviors

By automating crowd animation, Meander allows artists to focus on delivering the story rather than micromanaging thousands of characters by hand. Pixar open-sourced Meander in 2020 so other animators can benefit from its crowd capabilities.

Hyperion Renderer

Originally developed to handle complex lighting in Pixar’s first short film, The Adventures of André and Wally B., Hyperion Renderer remains an integral lighting and shader development tool.

Hyperion gives lighter artists:

  • Physically-based workflows for photoreal materials
  • Granular control over lighting rigs and AOVs
  • Raytracing for accurate reflections, shadows, and GI
  • Light linking support to manage complex scenes
  • Lighting templates for continuity across shots

Though RenderMan handles final renders, Hyperion enables iterative lighting workflow for look development. Its interactive feedback speeds up scene setup.

Pixar’s Animation Pipeline

So how does Pixar connect these discretization software pieces into an efficient end-to-end animation pipeline?

It starts with storytelling. Pixar’s charming, thoughtful stories have resonated with audiences everywhere. Before any animation begins, Pixar story artists iterate on narrative, characters, worldbuilding, and visual development.

With an approved story in place, Pixar relies on a workflow tailored to leverage its software tools:

Asset Creation

Modelers use Maya and ZBrush to craft the characters, props, and environments that populate Pixar’s worlds. Concept artists inform these designs with stylized drawings and 3D paintovers.Technical directors rig character models in Maya and use shaders to define their materials.

Layout & Animation

Animators block out shot sequencing and choreography in Maya. Rough layouts help establish camera language, posing, and timing. Pixar has developed libraries of reusable animations and complex character rigs to accelerate this process. Crowd shots may use Meander for group behaviors.

Effects & Simulation

Houdini handles Override effects animation like fire, smoke, and water. Effects artists also simulate cloth, hair, and crowds. Destruction and other physics are simplified in Houdini versus manual animation.


Lighting artists set up scenes in Maya then refine shaders and lighting in Hyperion. Light rigs established on previous shows get reused and customized with overrides per shot. Lighting defines a film’s overall look.


Completed scenes get batched out to Pixar’s render farm, leveraging RenderMan to generate final frames for compositing. RenderMan’s speed and scalability enable massively parallel rendering across thousands of cores.


After rendering, composite artists assemble the final shots in Nuke, adjusting color, lens effects, atmosphere, and other elements that tie the images together into a cohesive film.

This streamlined pipeline allows Pixar to produce animated features with incredible efficiency. Software automation combined with rock-solid production tracking and asset management (called Pixar’s ALF system) result in visual excellence with minimal overhead.

By leveraging the right tools for modeling, surfacing, rigging, effects, lighting, and compositing, Pixar’s talented technical and creative staff can focus their energy on the part that matters most – bringing memorable stories and characters to life.


From its earliest short films to recent masterpieces like Soul and Luca, Pixar has consistently pushed the medium of computer animation to new heights. Central to this success is Pixar’s philosophy of tackling production bottlenecks head-on by developing pragmatic software solutions in-house.

RenderMan remains the crown jewel – an industry-leading production renderer that balances reliability, speed, scalability, and photorealism. But just as importantly, Pixar has continued innovating with specialized tools like Meander and Hyperion that solve specific artistic challenges.

By combining rock-solid production software with a culture that embraces both creativity and technical problem-solving, Pixar empowers its teams to reach their full potential. There’s a reason Pixar’s beloved stories and characters continue resonating deeply with global audiences. When software gets out of the way, it frees great artists to focus on their craft.

Here’s a recap of the essential animation software and technologies Pixar relies upon behind the scenes:

  • RenderMan – Pixar’s robust production rendering software capable of incredible photorealism
  • Autodesk Maya – Leading industry 3D modeling and animation toolset
  • Houdini – Powerful procedural effects and physics software
  • ZBrush – Digital sculpting for highly detailed organic models
  • Meander – Pixar’s in-house crowd simulation system
  • Hyperion – Physically-based renderer for lighting and look development

By combining these solutions with a scalable pipeline tailored for computer animation, Pixar maintains its reputation as one of the most technologically innovative studios in the industry. And with many of these tools now available to aspiring animators and effects artists, Pixar continues sharing its passion for imagination, storytelling, and technical excellence.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What software does Pixar use for animation?

A: Pixar uses RenderMan, Autodesk Maya, Houdini, ZBrush, Meander Animation Tool, and Hyperion Renderer.

Q: What is RenderMan?

A: RenderMan is proprietary software used by Pixar for rendering 3D animations.

Q: Is RenderMan available for third parties?

A: Yes, RenderMan is available for third parties to use.

Q: How does Pixar’s software affect their animation pipeline?

A: Pixar’s software choices affect their animation pipeline by allowing for more efficient and effective creation of 3D animations.

Q: What is the importance of software in animation?

A: Software is important in animation because it allows for the creation of complex 3D models, realistic lighting and shadows, and efficient animation pipelines.

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