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See how Disney masters light to give its animation life

The tool — called Hyperion — mimics sunlight

Disney's winner for Best Animated Film, Big Hero 6, is one of its best-looking films. Between the intricate detail of San Fransokyo's 83,000 buildings and the soft edges of Baymax the robot, Disney worked technical magic — and now we have a better idea of how it was done. Yesterday, the company released a comprehensive explanation of its Hyperion rendering engine, which simulates how sunlight works.

Hyperion uses a technique called path tracing, which is an advancement on ray-tracing technology; this simulates the way light works in the real world, except in reverse. Rays from the Sun bounce off all objects, enabling us to see them — but it's difficult for computers to render billions of rays in real time. Instead of calculating the path of every ray of light in a scene, Hyperion only renders light seen by the camera, bundling all the rays traveling in the same direction into a "path" for efficiency. Pixar has also been using its own Global Illumination technology to bring more depth and life to its animated scenes. For Disney and Pixar, the future looks bright.

Correction: This story originally called Pixar a Disney competitor; Disney has owned Pixar since 2006. We regret the error.

Clarification, 12:47 PM ET: This article has been updated to reflect that Global Illumination technology is not exclusive to Pixar.