Inside The Science Behind Pixar at the Museum of Science

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

 I still remember the first time I saw a Pixar movie, many years ago. I was with two children whom I babysat regularly and we watched Toy Story, the first Pixar film. The movie was so breathtaking with its animation and intelligent in its storytelling that I knew I was witnessing something special.

Twenty years and two children of my own later, I’ve now seen every Pixar film — many of them multiple times. So when the Museum of Science, Boston (MOS) announced an exhibit that takes visitors into the process behind the making of Pixar movies, I had to go.

  The exhibit, The Science Behind Pixar, is a 10-city, five-year traveling display that was developed by Pixar and Boston’s MOS, according to Paul Fontaine, the museum’s vice president of education. “We had a lot of success with a previous exhibit in cooperation with Lucasfilm that talked about new technologies in movies coming to reality today. It was really an exhibit about engineering that was wildly popular.”

  With that experience under their belt, MOS was approached by Pixar about collaborating on an exhibit that gives a glimpse behind the scenes showing how Pixar movies are made. The result is a highly interactive, colorful, and engaging display for visitors of all ages to enjoy, said Fontaine.

  “The educators made the math and computer science topics really fun. It’s like a bag of potato chips: Once you start with the interactives, it’s addictive,” he said. “You want to delve deeper, go to the next interactive.”

  I visited the exhibit on a rainy Saturday with my children, ages 10 and 7, and my 16-year-old nephew. The museum was extremely busy that day but the exhibit is crowd-controlled: visitors buy admission for a certain time and only a limited number of people are allowed to view during that time slot.

  When you enter the exhibit, you view a 5-minute introductory film that takes you inside the walls of Pixar studios and features some of the artists, who explain the process of making the films. 

  From there, you round a corner and are greeted by huge, oversized models of Buzz Lightyear and Woody from the Toy Story movies, which of course became our first photo op.

  Making our way around the exhibit, there were multiple facets of animation described in detail, with many hands-on opportunities to really give visitors an idea of how the technology works. One of the first features we tried was the Plot a Fish demonstration, using characters from Finding Nemo. Modelers create Marlin’s shape in virtual 3-D using coordinate geometry to translate shape into a character that moves.

  Next, we were treated to a display on character maquettes, featuring Joy from Inside Out, Carl Fredricksen from Up, Dash from The Incredibles, and Luigi from Cars. The display explains that while drawings help define the basic form of a character, a model sculpted in clay reveals their whole shape. The maquettes on display were cast in plastic from original clay models that inspired the movie characters.

  There is also a section of the exhibit that focuses on surface animation; the colors, textures, and patterns of a character’s clothing, for example. We see what kind of intricate detail goes into creating surface appearance because, as we learn, surface tells us not only what an object is made from, but its history, too. Think of the dirty, worn appearance of Wall-E and his trash collection, which helps convey how long Wall-E has been living and working on an abandoned planet Earth. 

  The part of the exhibit that really stood out for me was the section on movement simulation, where the science behind the realistic movement of hair, or the gentle waves of the ocean under the sea in Finding Nemo, is explained. Visitors are given the chance to try different simulation stations and turn the simulation off and on in a number of scenes to see what they would look like without the technology.

  “Look at her hair!” my daughter exclaimed when it is revealed that Merida, from Brave, looks like she has a giant blob of red on top of her head without the motion simulation turned on.

  These are just a few examples of some of the really neat features in the exhibit. Other sections include details on lighting, rigging, and rendering. There is also a large model of Ant Island from A Bug’s Life, which gives viewers an explanation of scale and perspective, and which Fontaine pointed to as his favorite part of the exhibit.

  “We hope people will make the connection that this is related to what they learned in math or science, and this is how it can be used in a way that touches our lives,” he said.

  Emily Singer, a 15-year-old high school student from Essex, Vermont, was visiting the museum and was busy changing the lighting on a large model of Dory from Finding Nemo when I approached her. Singer, who said she has been fascinated by the science behind animation for several years, said she had been taken in by the hands-on demonstrations throughout the room.

  “It’s really tricky to try and get the lighting right and the way I want it in this activity. It helps me to understand more about how the science of it works,” she said.

  Katherine Saltonstall, 9, of Newton, was as impressed as I was by the movement simulation display: “I like how it shows you how it works. If you turn something on and off, you can really see the difference between scenes.” 

  “The main educational goal is to get people to understand that it’s really a combination of math, computer science, art, and creativity in the making of Pixar movies,” Fontaine said. “We think the exhibit provides just that.”

  The Science Behind Pixar runs through Jan. 10, 2016. Tickets are $29 adults, $27 seniors (60+), and $26 children (3-11). Advance ticket reservations are recommended.