A Fascinating Visit to “The Science behind Pixar Exhibition”

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Buzz modelOn Saturday, I took a trip with several friends and family members to the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles to visit “The Science behind Pixar Exhibition,” which covers 12,000 square feet and more than 40 interactive stations. We began by watching a film about the eight major steps in the process of making the computer animated movies. After that, we were let loose in this giant hall that seemed almost overwhelming in its size and extent. We were amazed to learn just how much math and science is behind making these movies and astonished at how much effort goes into the details of each character and each frame.

Toy Story sketchThe characters come to life first with rough sketches and then through a whole series of steps that include making physical models, assigning joints to each character that help define how it moves. We got to see small and large models of a number of the characters from Pixar movies.

Scenery modelEach Pixar movie has posed a unique challenge to the team making it. For example, A Bug’s Life posed the challenges of gaining the perspective of a bug, as well as making all the elements of nature repeated in each frame. To understand what a bug experiences, the animators created a “bug cam” to follow the bugs they intended to depict. This helped them understand just how even a blade of grass seems like a skyscraper to a bug and how leaves appear transparent with the sun behind them. As for the nature, the mathematicians realized that a blade of grass is essentially half a parabola and that they could create a whole field of blades of grass by adjusting the various forms of the formula. The mathematics they developed in A Bug’s Life came in useful for the sweeping nature scenes found in Brave.

Monster modelOne animating challenge I thought especially fascinating was the difficulty of creating the messy, curly hair of Merida from Brave. Bringing in a woman to model her own naturally curly hair, the animators realized that her coils act like springs. But a regular spring proved to be too bouncy, while a tight spring matched the hair’s appearance but got in the way of movement. So, as the woman in the video explained, they had to find “digital hairspray,” which they did with a core spring, which is a long, tight spring inside the coil of the main spring,  attached by other tight springs to the main spring. This gave them a realistic look of the hair as well as the motion that made it look natural.

Wall-E posed a unique challenge because the robot is made of junk, so they had to find a way to make him visible amid all the other junk in the junkyard. They accomplished this through clever use of lighting and shadows. Putting together the robots gave the Pixar team some creative fun in letting them interchange various parts. As one graphic pointed out, “With 4 arm pairs, 5 heads, and 7 leg pairs, you can assemble 140 different robots.”

When I asked the members of my group what they found memorable about the exhibit, almost every one brought up the section on lighting. I was surprised to learn that each frame contains over 200 points of light! It was amazing to see the difference that a change in the lighting in just one location made! We got to adjust the lamps on either side of a sofa from a scene from Monster’s Inc. and the amount of light coming in through a window, and just the adjustment of light from those locations changed the appearance of the whole scene. In addition, we got to see how changing the coloring of the lighting while we posed with Dory altered the whole mood of the scene. Notice how the mood changes between the picture of just my dad and me and the picture that my aunt joins.

Everyone in my group agreed that this exhibit was fascinating and well worth the trip. Even as someone who does not watch movies at all, let alone animated movies, I really enjoyed it and learned a lot. One from my group, a retired math professor, practically had to be dragged away when our time was up! I think we all walked away with a tremendous new appreciation for all the work that goes into making animated movies and all the science and math used for computer animated movies in particular.

You can catch this exhibit through April 16 at the California Science Center. Read the details on the exhibition website

You can also learn a lot more about the materials in the exhibit, complete with videos and interactive activities, at sciencebehindpixar.org.

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