If you were lucky enough to visit Boston's Museum of Science Monday, when the "Science Behind Pixar" exhibit debuted, you waited on long lines packed with screeching kids and paid $29 for your ticket. Then you entered a 10,000-square-foot, nonlinear exhibit hall whose immersive displays and kiosks silenced those children with visual awe and hands-on activities.
The exhibit includes eight sections, each delineating a specific portion of Pixar's moviemaking pipeline: Modeling, Rigging, Surfaces, Sets & Cameras, Animation, Simulation, Lighting, and Rendering. One interactive display about lighting showed a still from Up, with the characters Ellie and Carl inside a room. Using a series of sliding bars, you could control the brightness and color of the sunlight entering the room. You could see for yourself how Pixar's lighting decisions greatly affect the mood of a scene.
While the kids busied themselves with the displays, many of the adults stood raptly in front of kiosks showing videos of employees explaining what it's like to work at Pixar. How does a creative company like Pixar keep learning and innovating? Here are just a few highlights from the exhibit.
Don't Rush it
In Wall-E, director of photography for lighting Danielle Feinberg faced the challenge of lighting the title character. The challenge lay in the fact that Wall-E himself was the same color (worn, rusty metal) as the garbage piles surrounding him. Solving the problem involved highlighting Wall-E's geometries: The triangular treads of his feet, his cube-shaped torso, and his binocular-like head allowed his surfaces (and his depths) to visually stand out from the less shapely rubble behind him.
Smart decisions like these are the result of Pixar's patient approach to developing stories, Feinberg explains in a video interview. Many rounds of feedback inform the detailed emphasis on quality in every part of the moviemaking process, including hers.
"We spend, four, five, six years on a story. We don't just write a script and make a film. We work it over," she says. "You do a screening of the movie, and you get notes from all the people in the brain trust. That's other directors, that's heads of story, it's all these people who are really, really good at story.... It isn't about some executive telling you you need to do something, or the marketing person saying, 'Boys 9-to-13 like buying toys about this topic, so make a movie about that.' It's about a group of people...helping each other push back and forth on things and finding what's the great thing in there."
Let Your Team Get Emotionally Invested
Character animator Gini Santos wants the shapes and poses her characters assume to be both eminently believable and revealing of their personalities. She was the one responsible for giving Dory in Finding Nemo believable fish movements, with facial expressions that also revealed emotions. And she had very specific ideas of how to animate Dory, whom she lauds in the exhibit video as a carefree character with "no baggage."
Heather L. Holian, in her essay about animators in the book Masquerade, notes that at the start of the animation process on any Pixar project, there's a group conversation about the characters each animator wants to animate. "A lot of us already come into a project feeling strong about a certain character, and we'll ask for it," says Santos in the book.
Put a Little Pressure in the Feedback Process
In Inside Out, simulation technical director Samantha Raja worked on the clothing of the main character, Riley. Depending on Riley's emotion in a particular scene, the cloth of her clothing might dance jauntily away from her body or remain stiff in its movement. Her job, she says, was to "make the cloth an actor."
In an interview with the University of Pennsylvania Gazette, Raja says Pixar's feedback process is essential to her work. Initially, she'll use "a physics-based computer simulation program to create and control the way a character's hair or clothes move." Then, the film's director will watch the simulation she's created and give the proper feedback, often deciding "things should look a little different."
At which point, Raja might tweak the speed of a hair toss or the angle of a fur patch. "In the beginning, I got really stressed out because I knew if I made a mistake and no one caught it, it would be there for millions of people to see and then it would live on forever in the DVD," she tells the Gazette. "But I've sort of gotten over that. I'm OK with the pressure now."
Take a Chance on Complicated, Painstaking Projects
Senior software developer Per Christensen received an Academy Award for his work on a computer graphics technique that enables realistic shadowing and indirect illumination.
In a Pixar paper, describing his work on Cars, Christensen credits Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter for embracing his idea, even though it wasn't the easiest to pursue. In Cars, Lasseter, the director of the first two Toy Story and Cars films and a member of the company's original brain trust, welcomed Christensen's new approach for creating high-level, "ray tracing" effects to make the animated cars look and reflect light more like real cars:
There were two main rendering challenges in making the movie. First, Cars has scenes that are much more complex than past Pixar movies; for example, wide desert landscapes with many sagebrush and thorncovered cacti, and a racing oval with 75,000 cars as spectators. Second, ray tracing effects such as correct reflections, shadows, and ambient occlusion were needed to get the desired artistic look. Ray tracing these very complex scenes in manageable time was quite a challenge.
It was a challenge Christensen rose to and met.