Note: This article was originally published on Heroic Hollywood, but their recent site redesign has rendered it unreadable. I am republishing the article in its entirety here for posterity.
“We need kids to make stuff.”
That quote comes from Lindsey Collins, Producer of Finding Dory and VP of Development at Pixar. Collins was on hand for interviews at the media preview of the California Science Center’s newest exhibit: The Science Behind Pixar. Located in Exposition Park, just south of downtown Los Angeles, the California Science Center is a place dedicated to exploring the science behind aviation, space travel, the ecosystems of our world, and, beginning this Saturday, one of the world’s most well known animation studios.
You’d be hardpressed to find someone who wasn’t intimately familiar with Pixar’s stable of characters. Woody, Buzz, Mike, Sully, Marlin, Dory, Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl. These characters are frequent fixtures of backpacks, lunch boxes, and living room televisions, but what are they doing in a science museum in the heart of LA? Well, it turns out, even as popular as these movies are (along with the modern ubiquity of computer animation) there are still a lot of misconceptions about how these films and characters come to life.
People can kind of wrap their heads around hand-drawn animation – you can do it yourself with a pencil and a pad of Post-It notes – but computer animation is somewhat more mysterious. In fact, a lot of people still think that it all happens automatically; a process as simple as ‘push button, make movie.’ The truth however is that there’s a lot more work that goes into it, something that Collins hopes people get out of the exhibit.
I think if we all do our jobs right all of this work is invisible. Because, in the best sense you want your audience to sit down and not have any kind of distraction of how difficult or complex or amazing something looks. And that’s the ultimate irony because the better looking it gets and the more work that goes into it and the better we get at the jobs that we do in all of these technical departments, it’s almost like the less recognition they get, the more private they are.
And I think this is a great exhibit to say, hey, this is a ton of work and a ton of math and a ton of science and a ton of art that magically has to come together to create these characters that have become so familiar to so many people that they don’t think twice about it. It’s like, “Oh, that’s Buzz!” or “That’s Woody!” or “That’s Nemo!” They don’t even think for a second that these things never actually existed. What it takes to get that character to actually exist in this world.
What it takes, it turns out, is about four years and hundreds of artists and technicians working in various departments to make everything you see on screen completely from scratch. In live action, you can go find a location and rely on constants like gravity and the laws of physics. Not so in computer animation. Every blade of grass, every tuft of fur, every cloud, every reflection, even gravity itself has to be created by the filmmakers. The Science Behind Pixar Exhibition walks you through each of these steps with hands-on displays that give you a feel for what is involved each step of the way.
The exhibit begins with a short introductory video, giving an overview of the filmmaking process (or pipeline), as well as giving viewers a small taste of what it’s like to work at Pixar. If you’ve watched any of the behind-the-scenes featurettes that come standard with Pixar movies on Blu-ray, you already have an idea of what to expect with this. Once you enter the exhibit proper, though, you find yourself in a wide open space littered with more than 40 interactive stations.
The stations illustrate everything from computer modeling to lighting to particle and water effects. In one corner of the space, you can do some basic animation using rig of Jessie’s face, in another corner you can see how different variables adjust the look and feel of simulated grass, and in yet another you can play with the lighting in a scene and see how each individual light source helps to make the scene look real.
Amidst all of this you can find artwork and maquettes used in the development of these films as well as videos diving into more specific detail about both the science and technique that goes into these productions as well as personal stories from the people that make them. And not everyone at Pixar comes from a filmmaking or computer science background. Take, for instance, Jason Bickerstaff, a character rigger (i.e. someone who takes the character models and ‘rigs’ them with skeletons that allow them to be moved like puppets by the animators) who’s worked on films like WALL•E and Ratatouille. He talks about his background in music, and how he was able to apply the skills he learned in that field to this other pursuit. That’s something else Lindsey Collins hopes people will glean from this exhibit.
And I think that’s what my hope is, that kids can go around and look at these things. I think kids spend a lot of time these days saying, “Oh, I’m not an artist,” or “I’m not a mathematician,” or “I’m not that,” or “I’m not that,” and you listen to some of these videos. I mean, if I was on a video I’d be saying I was a diplomacy and world affairs major, I never took a film class, I’m not a film person, but then it’s like, yes I am. I am now!
And I think having kids come in and be like, “Oh! I can do that!” is such an eye opening experience. There is such a diversity of talent that it takes to put one of these on the screen that it’s no one thing. And so you don’t have to kind of limit yourself as, “Oh that’s not who I am.” Oh no, there are so many different types of people who put these movies together.
While there’s enough there of interest to appeal to adults who are particularly fond of the Pixar film canon and animation in general (guilty as charged), the exhibit is clearly geared primarily towards children. The majority of the space is given over to these hands-on displays that will allow kids to manipulate and play with these different technologies and to learn by doing what goes into making these films.
There were a number of kids present at the media preview, and while there were some who just charged through pressing all the buttons as quickly as possible, there was an impressive number of children who looked as though they were really engaging in each exhibit, fascinated by how each of these processes worked. As a kid who once had aspirations of being an animator, this kind of thing would have been monumental for me, and I imagine more than a few kids will come out of this exhibit with an ambition to pursue computer graphics and animation. For those kids, Lindsey Collins has one piece of advice:
Make stuff! It’s so easy now. I mean, it’s not easy to make something – it’s not easy to make anything – but there’s so much access to either programs or apps that can make it usable and tangible for kids to come in and be like, “Oh, I can record a song in GarageBand,” or “I can animate a ball,” or “I can code something pretty simple in a great coding app,” or “I can make a movie!” And just keep making it. Don’t make it for anybody else – you don’t have to show it to anybody. But just having that satisfaction of, “Oh my god, I made that!” Even if you never show anything about it, you’ll get more comfortable with the thrill that comes with making something. And I think we need that, we need kids to make stuff.
The Science Behind Pixar Exhibition opens to the public on Saturday, October 15. For tickets and more information, visit the California Science Center website.
Click through the gallery to see photos from the exhibit.