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The Science Behind Pixar

Exhibit at the Museum Of Science, Boston

The Museum Of Science (MOS) had a reception recently for the opening of The Science Behind Pixar. MOS was nice enough to invite us to check out the exhibit. We brought along a few interns because there was free food ūüôā


While the food was very¬†good, the exhibit was AMAZING! The approach was right in line with the idea that if you want to get kids excited about math and science show then them the end result (Sully’s blue fur in Monsters, Inc.) ¬†and THEN show them what is needed to get there (math and computer animation).


The Science Behind¬†Pixar¬†has over 40¬†interactive displays¬†and¬†kiosks¬†showing or¬†demonstrating¬†the technologies used by the Pixar¬†storytellers. They did an excellent job of making the technical ideas and concepts accessible to everyone. The “high touch” stations let everyone see/create/manipulate their own versions of the effects used in creating the Pixar characters, without having to understand all of the complexities under the hood (there is something about being able to make a character crossed-eyed that still evokes gales of laughter in little kids).¬†Those with a stronger background in science and math will appreciate the more detailed explanations on the side.


Pixar was created by Steve Jobs after¬†he was, uh, kicked out, of Apple in the 80’s. The company¬†debuted an animation short called “Luxo Jr.” at the Boston SIGGRAPH that blew everyone away. We were in the audience at that SIGGRAPH and remember it vividly. The graphics for Luxo Jr were created using some special hardware and software (later to be the NeXT computer) that brought ray-tracing (realistic lighting, shading, and shadows) to the masses. It is amazing to see how things have evolved into what they are today.


Explaining all the steps of the “imaging pipeline” could have been¬†overwhelming to visitors, but by breaking down the steps into “bite-size” pieces the concepts are¬†much easier to get across. The highly visual nature of the steps also helps. An example of this would be Rigging.

During¬†rigging, a computerized stick figure is created, and everything “hangs” off of it. By “moving” the¬†rig (essentially a skeleton),¬†all the other components¬†“react” based on¬†that the rig’s movement.

Next, a wireframe is built around the stick figure and shaped according to the artist’s conception (which is the first thing created).¬†Another artist adds the fur after the rig has been created. The quality of the fur (long, short, stiff, etc) is adjustable and will behave properly based on the angle of the surface polygon of the wireframe it is on (i.e., it moves very realistically).


Another¬†of the stations explains¬†how Pixar “grew” all of the grass in A Bug’s Life programmatically by using the basic equations for describing a parabola. A little girl who was watching the clip next to us¬†turns to her mother and said, “I am going to need to lookup parabolas!”


The last step to the Pixar imaging pipeline is Rendering. In this step, all of the pieces of the movie are in place and all the knobs have been tweaked. It is time to let the computers crunch the settings to create one of the hundreds of thousands of frames needed for the full-length animated film.

Here are some of the intermediate outputs of the rendering process. Keep in mind, the times posted are what was required for the computer to create¬†just ONE of the frames (30 frames/second, 3600 seconds in an hour). We will let you do the math for how much computer time it takes to generate a two hour Pixar movie ūüôā


“The Science Behind Pixar is a behind-the-scenes look at how our movies are made” said Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. “The interactive exhibition gives people the opportunity to learn about the jobs our filmmakers do every day and tackle similar problems. It’s a great demonstration of how much creativity and imagination is involved in the science, technology, engineering, art and math thinking essential to our filmmaking process.”

We couldn’t agree more! Lots of math, without losing the audience in the math; very well done. The technology¬†is fascinating, but all of it disappears into the background when¬†properly used to tell a great story, which is what Pixar is all about.

This is one of the most engaging exhibits we have attended at the MOS. Readers fortunate enough to be within driving distance of the MOS should NOT miss this one. It will be at the MOS until January 10th, 2016.

Museum of Science, Boston – The Science Behind Pixar

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