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Pixar’s Brilliance Lies in the Creativity of Its Engineers

We visited The Science of Pixar Exhibition in LA to chat with some of the biggest brains at the animation juggernaut.

by Mike Pearl
Oct 17 2016, 2:47pm

Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki

The Science Behind Pixar Exhibition is the newest show at the California Science Center, a family-friendly science museum and aquarium in Los Angeles whose main claim to fame is that it houses the taxidermied corpse of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The name "The Science Behind Pixar" may call to mind a bunch of cynical, vaguely educational displays about how the fish in Finding Nemo swim, and how high the house in Up would go in real life. But the good news is that this show somehow manages to be even nerdier than that, in a good way.

The unspoken question Pixar seems to be addressing here is, "Why are my teachers making me learn all this dumb math and science?" Answer: "So you can make the next Toy Story and Inside Out when you grow up." Surprisingly non-tedious displays allow kids of all ages to participate in the process Pixar uses to make its iconic movies. You can make shapes in three dimensions. You can animate characters' faces and limbs, and then you can add texture, lighting, and special effects, and it's all in the name of getting kids to be enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs.

Thanks to new public incentives, more and more kids are being encouraged to go STEM. Sure, STEM degrees land recipients in uninspiring fields like petroleum geology and aviation metallurgy, but, it turns out, they can also make movies. Two such STEM majors at Pixar, Tom Porter, vice president of development, and Tony DeRose, a senior scientist at Pixar Research, were at the exhibition when I visited last week. They told me how the magic shop of wonders we call Pixar began as a place for STEM majors to tinker with computers in an effort to see if you could maybe think about making movies with them. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo by Michael Malyszko

VICE: I couldn't help but notice there's really no mention of movie directors or writers or actors or anything like that here. What's the deal?
Tom Porter: There's nothing about the creative side. This is much more focused on the science training, the math training that leads into the technical side of what gets done at Pixar. But you're right. This absolutely ignores what the story artists do, and what the designers do. This is all about [making] sure these kids understand that what they're learning in sixth grade math and eleventh grade physics is actually relevant to something.

As someone with a science or math background, what's the difference between how you approach the creation of a Pixar character, and someone like a director?
Tony DeRose: Suppose you want to build a character like Lightning McQueen. You can think of building that character as kind of analogous to building a marionette in real life. You first have to create its basic shape—carve the wood or styrofoam or whatever. In digital form, that shape creation is called modeling. The next thing you need to do is kinda spray-paint the model. And how does light reflect off of that surface? Is it shiny? Is it dull? Is it bumpy? That's the texturing and surfacing stage. The texturing and surfacing area [of the exhibit] over there describes that...

Did Pixar start out like that? As a place that was full of science-minded people?
Porter: [George Lucas] had this dream that computers could help out the future of filmmaking. He said, "Do some research and figure this out for me." Lucasfilm morphed into Pixar. In 1986, Steve Jobs marched in with a million dollars and bought us from George Lucas. When we started figuring well how do we make a profitable company out of this? [Toy Story director John Lasseter] came in at the end of those Lucasfilm days, and he really focused on character animation. Up until John walked in, it was a bunch of people like me who had gotten their master's in computer science or math or something—all technical staff. Slowly over time, as Toy Story got going, artistic people, like storytellers and designers came in, and that was the major transition that happened.

Can you give me an example of a big piece of scientific work that you pioneered at Pixar?
DeRose: Personally, the biggest "aha" that I was involved in as a researcher directly was when Toy Story was originally done, if you go back and look at Buzz Lightyear for instance from [the first] Toy Story, look at his face. It was kind of a smooth surface that represented most of his face, and a smooth surface that represented his nose. [Taps on the rounded nose of a nearby Buzz Lightyear statue.] This must be a Toy Story 2 or 3 Buzz. In the first Toy Story, there would be a hard crease right here because they just stuck the nose inside the face, and they just intersected each other, because we didn't know how to create really complicated smooth surfaces. So I was involved in some of the math and software to basically create any kind of smooth surface in a way that would be most efficient for computers and could be controlled by artists.

So being "senior scientist" really means applying the scientific method? Hypothesis, experimentation, conclusion, all that?
[Nods] It's very much an iterative process. We build tools and test them with artists, and they'll give us feedback about what's working, and what's not. And then we'll take that feedback and try to improve our algorithm, software, and user interfaces, take it back to the artists, and eventually it becomes good enough to give them, and they can start using it in production. Sometimes they peter out, and we go, Alright, we learned we don't wanna do that. And then we back up and pick up some other thread.

I noticed there's an exhibit over there called "Computing Believable Surface Textures." Has it been tough trying to translate all this science jargon into something kids understand?
Porter: There was a lot of work done for this exhibit, which started with the Boston Museum of Science. There was probably two and a half years of work. Tony worked with them to solve that problem: How do you take the full complexity of 15 different departments—rigging, modeling, hair-simulation, and everything else—and somehow encapsulate it in an interactive kiosk, with (jostles some nearby knobs and dials somewhat violently) bulletproof sorta knobs and dials?

Aren't you worried some science-minded kid will see all this stuff, and get a job working for today's equivalent of George Lucas, and then come up with the next Pixar?
That's just how the world works! We have a certain way of doing things. Arguably, we have a certain look to our films. We have a certain way of telling stories, and bring it on! Come on! Let's see who has a brainy idea about the next wave of entertaining people in movie theaters. [Looks around.] It could be one of these kids, right now! That's the beauty of things like this.

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