Boston’s Museum of Science always has new and exciting exhibitions on display. I recently went to see one of their most popular exhibits: “The Science Behind Pixar.” This exhibition opened on June 24, and will continue to be on display until January 10. It sheds new light on the process of how beloved Disney classics are created, as well as the process behind some newer animated films.
Pixar Animation Studios began in 1979, as part of Lucasfilm, and in 1986, with funding from Apple Inc., it became its own corporation. Best known for its CGI-animated films, Pixar’s first feature-length film was Toy Story in 1995. Since then, the studios have created 15 films, including A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Cars, Finding Nemo, and their latest film, Inside Out. Pixar has won 7 Golden Globes, 15 Academy Awards and 11 Grammys, along with many other awards.
Upon walking into the exhibit, you are first greeted by the ever-enthusiastic Mr. Ray from Finding Nemo, and Roz from Monsters, Inc. A screen at the front of the room shows the characters as they give a brief explanation of what is to follow, and a short video explains what goes on behind the scenes at Pixar animation. Two Pixar animators take you on a tour of how films are animated, from the beginning sketches all the way to the finished product. At the end of the video they invite you to explore more of the world of animation.
As I walked through the exhibit, I felt a sense of excitement as I read about and watched how some of my favorite movies as a kid were brought to life. One workstation featured a classic character: the Pixar lamp. Guests were invited to create a short stop-motion film by moving the lamp across a guide and taking pictures along the way. Each workshop featured a different part of the animation pipeline: story and art, modeling, rigging, surface, sets and cameras, animation, simulation, lighting, and finally, rendering. Interactive sets and games were set up to show you how each step was accomplished.
You may think, “Why is an exhibit about the ART of animation being displayed in a SCIENCE museum?” I thought the same thing, but once inside, the reason became very clear. Computers of course, create much of the animated world we see on screen; but art still plays a major role in the process as well. Storyboards and concept sketches lined the walls of the exhibit, as well as notes and adjustments to character designs. In the early stages of Toy Story, Woody was actually supposed to be a ventriloquist’s puppet, but was instead swapped out for a more likable design.
On the other hand, you would never think that in A Bug’s Life the animating team used the equation of a parabola to create blades of grass. They eventually came up with a computer program that could randomly generate varying sizes and shades of grass. With this computer program, they were able to reuse the process to make more natural landscapes in other films years later, such as a more recent movie, Brave.
A video clip explained some of the challenges that the animating team faced with A Bug’s Life; they had never made a film with so much detail in nature before it. One of the team members eventually came up with the “bug cam”. Clovers and blades of grass looked like tall trees, and the sunlight streaming through leaves made them look like stained glass. Using this technology allowed artists and team members to get a whole new perspective of what the world of a bug might be like.
Every new film brings obstacles that must be overcome. When making Toy Story, the entire process was almost completely from scratch, as it was the first ever completely computer animated movie. In Pixar’s Cars, the new challenge was figuring out how to create a metallic surface and reflection of the cars. And in Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, Joy’s character proved to be a little tricky, too. It took eight months to finally get the perfect aura-like glow surrounding Joy and the other emotions. Each character was made of “particles”, a constantly moving energy.
When working with an animated film, it’s almost as if you’re setting up for a play. You have to design the sets and props, manipulate the characters so they act and move how you want through the stage, and you even have to provide the lighting. There are multiple different light sources in each scene. Sets and props are created using a computer program, with the objects moving on different axis of a graph. Each character has to have rigging, which is sort of like a virtual skeleton, for the character. This allows for facial expressions to change, arms and legs to move and to allow for a realistic movement of the character. Sulley, from Monsters, Inc., has hundreds of facial rigs alone. Like any human, when one body part moves, something else follows and is impacted by that move. Rigging and connecting certain body parts together allows for this more life-like motion.
Two of the last steps in animation are simulation and rendering. In simulation, most of the characters have been rigged and they have their basic movements and functions. But it’s more of a test of the animation before fully rendering the image. Simulation is interactive and can be changed, so with just the basic movements down, animators can work out any kinks or change anything they don’t like. A screen in the exhibit displayed examples of simulation on and off for the move Brave. In the simulation, Merida’s and her horse’s hair didn’t have any natural flow to it, and didn’t move with their bodies. But the final animated image showed Merida’s curls bouncing and blowing around in the breeze. The final step in the animation pipeline is rendering. Rendering an image is a process of adding shading and color to create the final image. It can be a long and tedious process, but it’s necessary to put together the final product of the film.
In hindsight, I never would have thought math was such an essential component to making movies. Being an artist, I’ve focused on the creative aspect of films and the artwork used in it. I never realized that parabolas could be turned into grass, or complex math equations to make Merida’s curls. Or even something as simple as a bug cam can inspire animators to make intricate computer generated forests of lifelike tall grass. From start to finish, I found this exhibit very worthwhile– whether you are a LUCAD student who is studying animation, a math major, or just a fan of movies, the Pixar exhibit at the Museum of Science should not be missed.