Pixar’s 18th feature film, “Cars 3,” reaches movie theaters June 16, but starting Friday the studio’s fans who don’t want to wait that long can get a behind-the-scenes look at the singular mix of artistic creativity and technological skill behind the cartoon titan’s string of blockbuster films.
The Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul is presenting “The Science Behind Pixar.” It’s a 12,000-square-foot exhibit exploring how Pixar combines storytelling with technology, engineering and math to create emotionally touching animated figures in believable virtual worlds. In short, it’s how the studio makes us laugh and cry with science.
The interactive exhibit, which includes scenes from all 17 earlier movies, is hosted by human-size likenesses of beloved Pixar film characters, including Buzz Lightyear, Dory, Mike and Sulley, Edna Mode and Wall-E. It’s a rare chance to pose for a selfie with the stars. Created by the Museum of Science in Boston, in partnership with Pixar, it is in the early stages of a 10-year national tour.
It’s more than a publicity push by Pixar, said Tony DeRose Sr., the studio’s senior scientist and lead researcher.
“Education is in our DNA,” he said. “People stay creative because they’re learning things. Too often when kids are learning math or science in a classroom, it seems completely irrelevant, devoid of application and in no way useful to their lives. ‘Why do I need to know about a parabola?’ We wanted to provide answers for that. We’re trying to show the applicability and inspirational nature of it — how concepts being learned by kids in classrooms can be used for creative benefit.
“The selfish part [of mounting the exhibit] is we want to keep hiring the best and brightest kids who know how to blend math and science and art together.”
Bloomington-born Pete Docter, writer/director of Pixar’s “Up,” “Inside Out” and “Monsters, Inc.” calls his collaboration with the technical team “essential” to injecting feeling and life into animation.
“The story inspires the technology, but then the technology informs the art side of things,” he said.
How else can you make a movie that takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl the way “Inside Out” does?
“It really gives us a lot of ideas, and we’re really inspired by what they’re doing,” he said of the high-tech advisers.
A shaggy monster story
A good example is the shaggy fur covering Sulley in “Monsters, Inc.,” a key point in the character’s impact. If his fuzz looked stiff and false rather than simply bushy teal, viewers wouldn’t accept him.
“That kind of exotic-looking fur was something that had not been done at that time,” he said. “At the beginning, we couldn’t do it, but we just trusted that in a few years we would be able to develop the technology to be able to pull it off. What we asked for was not at all what we wound up with. It was much better, largely because we listened to what the technology led us toward.”
Docter stressed how much the input means to him as a director.
“It’s true to a certain degree that the films here are director-driven, but that implies one person,” he said. “That is completely false. It’s very collaborative and a big group effort. The job of the director is to steer all of these great minds into the places you’re wanting to explore.”
The exhibition includes eight segments, each representing one step of the production pipeline and concepts used at Pixar throughout a film’s evolution from concept to screen. The processes — modeling, rigging, surfaces, sets and camera, animation, simulation, lighting and rendering — offer guests an on-screen view of the individual stages. In each section, different Pixar films are highlighted to show how those processes were used to develop the film.
Modeling shows how the digital 3-D models of “Toy Story” characters were created based on illustrators’ hand-drawn cartoon-style sketches. In order for the characters to move believably, each needed a distinct virtual skeleton whose creation is detailed in rigging. Lighting examines the use of computer-generated sunshine to brighten the animated water for “Finding Nemo.” Sets and camera reveals how “A Bug’s Life” mimicked an insect’s-eye view and the interior of an ant colony.
Once they have been introduced to the techniques, visitors can use more than 40 hands-on displays to make some digital movie magic of their own. One allows users to tweak the illumination on a digital set, another to adjust the features of a computer-generated face like Mr. Potato Head, repositioning his nose, mouth and eyes.
“The human connection to these math and science concepts is sometimes a little hard to grasp,” Science Museum spokesman Joe Imholte said. “We tend to think of scientists as people in white lab coats. But there are also fantastic artists like the people in Pixar who create beauty and wonder.”
Learning that all the blades of grass in “A Bug’s Life” were based on a parabola “really helps people grasp those concepts in a different way,” he added.
The exhibition will be at the Science Museum only through Labor Day.
“It’s here from school’s out till school’s back, so we hope everybody knows about that short window and comes to see it early,” Imholte said.
The Science Behind Pixar
What: An interactive exhibit inspired by the science and technology behind Pixar’s award-winning films.
When: Friday-Labor Day.
Where: Science Museum of Minnesota, 120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul.
Tickets: $22.95-$28.95, scheduled for a specific entry time and date. Go to smm.org/tickets or call 651-221-9444 or 1-800-221-9444.