Science museum

The Pixar exhibit at the Cincinnati Science Museum | Community


When our oldest son, Mitchell, was in college, he developed an interest in film, something he pursued with his production company, Mitch Smith Media.

Mitchell’s first attempt at making films was animation. He sculpted some pretty coarse action figures out of plasticine, added plastic action figures like GI Joe, and created a simple frame of a field where the characters could engage in battle.

He quickly discovered how difficult it was to generate the action, even for a short movie. Progress was slow. Painfully slow.

For each scene, Mitchell had to move all the characters a fraction of an inch for each frame. Then capture these subtle changes with the video camera. Pause. Carefully, meticulously, painfully reposition each character, with just a little bit of adjustment each time. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

At the end of a long day of filmmaking, Mitchell shared what he had produced. He had only recorded about 6 seconds of his story. And the action was choppy where he was going too far, too fast.

While he appreciated the art and craftsmanship of animation, Mitchell turned to live action movies where it’s easier and faster to position people than clay figures.

Mitchell’s first project was long before computers could be programmed to create characters and movements. Now, animation companies depend on diagrams and digital models to make their films.

Through a Pixar exhibit at the Cincinnati Science Museum, Mason and I learned how some of our favorite animated films were created. Better yet, there were 50 interactive stations where we could follow in the footsteps of the pros to design car logos for “Cars”, light up Mr. Fredricksen’s house in “Up” and position Cowgirl Jessie’s mouth in “Toy Story” to show different emotions.

Each film basically follows a 9-step process. Like any film, it begins with a strong “story”. Who are the key figures? What dilemma do they face? What obstacles stand in their way? How will the conflict be resolved?

It’s all plotted on a storyboard – a series of sketches that stretch from start to finish.

These are pretty rough drawings of the characters and the set, which will be refined as the animators work through the production process. For example, Woody’s first portrayal of “Toy Story” makes him look more like a puppet than the most rooted and totine cowboy of the wild and wild west. Luckily, he comes out of this delicate stage to become the kind-hearted sheriff we all know and love.

“Modeling” is the next step, where detailed digital models are created from these early sketches to better define a character’s shape and characteristics. Animators depend on math and physics to determine the curves and angles to create the virtual wireframe model to build on. “Toy Story 2” alone used 1,000 character models.

Next is “Rigging”, which adds movement to the film. When a character walks, animators should consider how all the joints and muscles work together to make this possible – how the bending of one elbow affects the entire arm. Mike Wazowski, the green eyeball with arms and legs in “Monsters, Inc.”, had 7,000 rig controls to manage his movements.

We were able to experiment with Jessie’s facial expressions by raising or lowering her eyebrows and adjusting her mouth. The human face has 43 muscles, and Jessie has used over 700 commands to show emotions like surprise, shock, and happiness.

Step 4 is “Surface”. This is how colors, patterns and textures are incorporated into the characters’ hair, skin and clothing. For inanimate objects, such as cars, animators should consider how light reflects off their surface. Lightning McQueen had 14 varieties of red paint to show how shiny and new his paint job was at the start of “Cars,” and how dirty and dusty he got during his races.

Like live action, “sets” for virtual films must create a realistic environment. In “A Bug’s Life”, the animators studied the height, width and color of the blades of grass, as there is a variety in each plot. And they had to take into account the perspective – that to an ant, “a stalk of a clover looks like a big tree.”

“Animation” is where the characters come to life. It’s like what our son tried years ago – only done digitally now. Pixar animators shoot 24 frames per second, so there can be 138,000 frames in a movie, each showing a slight change as characters move from frame to frame.

At an animation station, we were able to position Pixar’s mascot, a desk lamp, in stopping action. Five minutes of tedious little movements collected about 2 seconds of film, but what a thrill!

“Simulation” is step seven. It realistically shows how the water falls. Or how Merida’s wild, long, red, mop-like curls move together as she rides a horse in “Brave.”

“Lighting” adds a lot to creating an ambiance. A scene can be bright or dark, making it feel warm and cozy, or something more spooky. It can draw the viewer’s attention to the action or distract us from something that is happening elsewhere.

The last step is the “Render”. This is where all the parts are transformed into a final 2D image. In “Up”, each pixel of the balloons that lifted Mr. Fredricksen’s house had to be colored separately. And even if a balloon was blue, it might need a purple tint to make it stand out.

It is an intensive and extensive process that takes years to develop.

So, the next time you go to see a Pixar movie, stay on the long list of rolling credits and give the animators a standing ovation for the effort it takes to bring these stories to life.