The Science Behind Pixar Exhibit is Ridiculously Cool…

the science behind pixar - buzz lightyearI was lucky enough to be invited to the grand opening of The Science Behind Pixar exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science a few days ago and naturally brought along my posse to enjoy the festivities. Pixar, of course, is the extraordinarily successful animation studio behind so many great films, including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Up, Coco, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Monsters Inc., Wall-E and so many more. Pixar has won an impressive fifteen Academy Awards, nine Golden Globes and eleven Grammy awards, among its many other successes. More importantly, the company has revolutionized animation with its huge computer banks, astonishing software and amazing realism, whether it’s Merida’s curly, flowing hair in Brave or the reflectivity of the banged up Mater in Cars. But how do they actually turn an idea and a rough storyboard into what we see on the screen?

That’s the focus of The Science Behind Pixar exhibit that’s just opened up at the museum, to let us meet some of the Pixar team and learn, step by step, how the accomplish this remarkable artistic journey, film after film. The exhibit opened Oct 11 and will be at the museum until April 5, 2020, but be aware they’re using timed admission tickets to control the crowds so if you really want to ensure you aren’t disappointed, grab them tickets online before you go!

My friends and I all met up at the west entrance to the museum at sunset, a glorious sun setting over the Rocky Mountains in the distance, with City Park and the downtown skyline between. It made for the perfect lighting conditions for a group selfie, of course:

dave taylor and friends group selfie

We headed into the museum and immediately made a beeline to the bar and appetizers. What better way to celebrate the end of a workweek and get into the mood for some fun animation education? The DMNS food spread was quite interesting too, because they had common looking appetizers that were composed of different ingredients than I expected.

After a few minutes, we headed into the exhibit on the third floor of the Museum. As you can see, even the signage is cheery and reminds viewers of the most popular of the Pixar characters:

dmns pixar signage

I would guess that there’s not a six year old – or 25 year old, for that matter – who couldn’t name every single major Pixar character from their almost two dozen feature movies. So I won’t bother here! 🙂

Once inside, the first stop is an amusing five minute movie that introduces you to the “pipeline”, the specific steps involved in that journey from rough idea to final polished film. It’s narrated by Pixar employees and your mission is to count just how many unique t-shirts they wear during the brief running time. It’s a LOT! It’s also a good way to orient yourself to an exhibit that’s only loosely organized and can be more than a bit confusing if you just wander around (particularly if you explore it in a counterclockwise fashion. don’t do that, go clockwise instead):

intro to the science behind pixar exhibit - dmns

Once you walk into the exhibit, I strongly suggest that you begin by walking straight ahead until you encounter the circle of signs that comprise this particular display, Pixar’s Production Pipeline:

pixar production pipeline

The exhibit itself is laid out in these same nine areas, from Story & Art to Rendering, so it’s helpful to get the basic lay of the land, as it were.

Then the fun begins, because just about every single display is interactive and hands-on, with all quite fascinating for children and adults both. For example, to realistically animate the motion of a character, they utilize animation technique called rigging. Fortunately, huge models of Jake and Sully are on hand to help serve as demonstrations:

rigging exhibit - science behind pixar - denver museum nature science monsters inc

Learning about camera angles, depth of field, camera height and the resultant moods that can evoke is done with the help of Wall-E:

camera angles - wall-e - science behind pixar -dmns

Before the Pixar team gets to camera angles and rigging, however, they start with story. The first phase is Story & Art, then they jump to Modeling where the characters are invented in 3-dimensional clay models.

The exhibit of these models is a good demonstration of some of the additional artistic skill of the Pixar team: There are mighty talented sculptors working at Pixar. Here’s an early Buzz LIghtyear model, for example, that’s about a foot tall:

models and minatures - buzz lightyear - toy story - science behind pixar

Though it was pretty empty and relaxed for the grand opening, I’m confident that by now you’ll never have a chance to see the exhibit with this much space and these few people. In the below, Sets & Cameras is also represented by A Bug’s Life, and this particular exhibit includes a chance for the little ones to crawl through an dispay just their size:

science behind pixar exhibit - denver museum of nature and science

One of the things my friends and I found most impressive were the huge paintings from the various animated movies too. It demonstrates that when the animators want to think about ‘sweeping vistas’ they create, well, sweeping vistas.

For example, here’s some concept art for Tepui from the wonderful film Up. You can’t tell from the photo, but it’s about 10′ x 15′ and yes, I’d love to have this hanging on the wall in my house somewhere too:

concept art tepui from up - science behind pixar - dmns

Speaking of the movie Up, they also had a really cool interactive exhibit where visitors could learn about Lighting Design, the effect of lighting location, brightness and color on the mood of a scene. The above picture is of something huge, the below is a closeup of a diorama the size of a shoebox used to demonstrate the various lighting concepts:

old man's house - up - science behind pixar - dmns

Anyone who’s seen Up will recognize that as the interior of Carl’s tiny little house. It’s the one that ends up having thousands of balloons tied to its chimney for the film’s great adventure…

Finally, just as in the Pixar pipeline, the exhibit ends with a demonstration of Rendering, from wireframe to finished image. For this particular area, they tapped into the beautiful and heartwarming Coco. I caught the demo process on video:

Just so you know, I added that background music to make the video a bit more thematic, otherwise it’s just me standing, holding my phone very still and capturing the remarkable amount of work and computer time required for each and every frame of the final product.

After maybe two hours we had to drag one of my friends out of the exhibit. It was that interesting. And for children I imagine it’s almost as wonderful as a trip to Disneyland with the larger-than-life Pixar characters and interactive screens and devices. Well worth checking out, and the fact that it’s free with admission to the DMNS is quite a deal. You’ll definitely want to check it out before it’s too late. Get tickets here.

Disclosure: The Denver Museum of Nature and Science extended an invitation to my friends and I in return for me writing up our experiences at the exhibit. Super nice of them, thanks DMNS!

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