The California Science Center digs into 'The Science Behind Pixar'

The California Science Center digs into 'The Science Behind Pixar'
Pose with a human-sized model of Buzz Lightyear and learn how he was made at "The Science Behind Pixar" exhibition at the California Science Center. (Michael Malyszko)

"The Science Behind Pixar," a multimedia exhibit that opens Saturday at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, shows that for the artists at Pixar, like their counterparts at the Walt Disney Studio in the '30s, scientific research is a key element in the creation of quality animated films.

"Walt Disney always strove to get more believability into his animation. He was always using science to improve his animated films," says John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.


"Making one of our films is incredibly challenging: We're constantly solving very complex scientific problems to achieve what we want to do," he says. "In the early days of Pixar, we coined the phrase, 'Art challenges technology; technology inspires art,' and you can replace 'technology' with 'science': From the combination of art and science, you get ideas you would have never thought of otherwise."

The research for animated films takes many forms. For "Bambi," Walt Disney dispatched a photographer to shoot footage of the Maine woods and brought rabbits, skunks and deer to his studio for the artists to study. Pixar animators watched chefs at work at Thomas Keller's French Laundry for "Ratatouille" and visited a Bay Area landfill for the climactic scene at the dump in "Toy Story 3." Observation and study help the artists understand how characters should move, what's unique about the light in a specific place, how surfaces reflect, etc., which they will caricature in their films.

"Our hope is that this exhibit will be a great vehicle for getting kids excited about science," adds Diane Perlov, senior vice president for exhibits at California Science Center. "It shows people that knowing how the real world works — how light works, how anatomy works — helps you create better animated films. We hope it will inspire children to learn more about science and technology and math."

Visitors can control Jessie's facial expressions at "The Science Behind Pixar" exhibition at the California Science Center.
Visitors can control Jessie's facial expressions at "The Science Behind Pixar" exhibition at the California Science Center. (Michael Malyszko)

Visitors to the exhibition are greeted by Roz from "Monsters, Inc." and the upbeat Mr. Ray from "Finding Nemo," who introduce a video outlining the Pixar animation process. The exhibit itself is divided into eight areas that follow the studio's pipeline: modeling (building the individual characters), rigging (creating the internal structure that enables the animators to move the characters), surfaces (creating the characters' appearances with shaders), sets and camera (the equivalent of live-action cinematography), animation, simulation (creating believable hair, cloth, etc.), lighting (using light to enhance the sense of place and mood), and rendering (creating the final images that appear on screen).

Elyse Klaidman, director of exhibitions and education programs at Pixar, explains, "We've tried to break our technical pipeline into clear sections to give anyone who comes to the exhibit — especially kids — an understanding of the science, technology, engineering and math it takes to create films."

In the rigging module, visitors choose whether Woody should have one, two or three joints in his arm, then use dials to bend his arm while watching the results on a monitor. The animation section allows visitors to move Luxo Jr., at different rates and observe the results.

In a video, director of photography-lighting Sharon Calahan explains how the crew of "Finding Dory" used reference footage from scuba divers to study how light diffuses in sea water, how colors change as an object moves into deeper water and how lighting can strengthen the emotional content of a scene. Visitors can apply the knowledge by changing the lighting on a large plastic model of Dory, studying the results and taking selfies with the bright blue fish.

The artists in the videos encompass both genders and a wide array of ethnicities, reflecting Pixar's diverse makeup. "In addition to the hands-on experience, we introduce the people behind the scenes: who they are, how they started, what is it that makes them passionate about their work," Klaidman says. "An important aspect of the video content was to make sure everybody who sees this exhibit sees people who look like them. It was important to make it clear to kids — and students in particular— that our staff includes people from diverse backgrounds who've gotten involved in this collaborative art form."

"When they see the faces and hear the voices of the artists on video, they'll see themselves, so they can imagine themselves doing this kind of work," agrees Perlov.

Families who attend "The Science Behind Pixar" may come home with an SUV full of aspiring animators — and a few adults wishing they'd made different career choices.


"The Science Behind Pixar"

Where: California Science Center, 700 Exposition Drive, Los Angeles

When: Through April 9