ON LOCATION - April, 2016

The Science of Pixar

Tony DeRose, Senior Scientist & Research Leader

BY Isabel Angel, Aiden Ament, Lola Daley, Adriana Golden, Gillian Friend, Carissa Lee, Shyla Lensing, Jonah Kernis, Jane Merkle, Abby Smith, Cole Summers, Giselle Turchon, Lilly Wanninger and Sophia Zoog; from Bel-Aire, Branson, Gate AcaDemy, Marin Academy, Hall Middle, Kent Middle, Marin Catholic, Marin Montessori, Miller Creek Middle, Mill Valley Middle, Marin Waldorf and San Rafael High Schools

image of our group of FastForward Adventure Reporters on location at Pixar's headquarters A darkened movie theatre. “Please silence your phone before the movie starts,” an audio speaker booms. The screen bursts to life, and the iconic Pixar logo appears across it, complete with the mischievous letter-crushing lamp that first debuted in the short film Luxo Jr. nearly thirty years ago. Since then, young and old alike have enjoyed Pixar Animation Studios’ slew of classic computer animated films, with titles like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles entertaining millions through their hilarious, thrilling, and moving storytelling.

Pixar’s latest animated adventure, Inside-Out, premiered to critical and commercial success. But FastForward reporters wondered: what does it take to animate such intricately realized worlds, and who are the people that turn a series of equations and commands on a computer into a living, breathing film? To find out, we visited Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, California to meet with one of the company’s Senior Scientists/Research Group Leader Tony DeRose, whose passion for both art and math helps make the movie magic that has cemented Pixar as a great American filmmaking institution.

Upon arriving at Pixar’s headquarters, one is first struck by how beautiful a place it is to work. Life-size models of Mike and Sulley from “Monster’s University,” a giant statue of the Luxo Jr. lamp, and a gallery of concept art from Inside-Out are some of the most immediately recognizable landmarks that grace the tasteful brick and wood architecture of Pixar’s Steve Jobs Building. The next thing you’ll notice is that, at the other end of the building’s large, open lobby, throngs of employees eat snacks, laugh, and chat with each other. This sight is a reflection of Pixar’s unique philosophy on teamwork: the campus itself was designed to encourage ‘unplanned collaborations,’ with its layout and recreational areas built to allow intermingling between departments of the company that would otherwise not usually meet. A pool, basketball and volleyball courts, fitness centers, and even a series of hammocks allow for a very social atmosphere to surround the mixture of different professionals who make Pixar work. The hipsters, the businessmen, and the nerds aren’t isolated – they work, talk, hang out, and solve problems together.

Tony DeRose is one of those problem solvers. With a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, Tony has spent nearly two decades of his life working on Pixar projects. Being a Senior Scientist and Research Leader for the company is a highly demanding job, but Tony’s enthusiasm for his work has propelled him through projects dating back to the 1998 short film Geri’s Game. The short, which depicts an old man playing a game of chess against himself, was revolutionary in its use of an animation technique called ‘subdivision.’ In order to create more lifelike motion and texture, subdivision was pioneered by Tony DeRose’s team, and has gone on to be used for all Pixar features and short films since. To gain a greater understanding of what exactly subdivision is, FastForward sat down with Tony DeRose himself.

Image of Pixar's famous Luxo Jr. lamp, one of the first computer animation films created using their softwareTony opened by explaining the degree of math and science that goes into animating Pixar characters and the worlds they inhabit. For each part of the movie-making process, a different form of math needs to be used. “We first have to bridge the world of shapes and images that artists think in terms of with the world of numbers and equations that computers deal with. We do this by using coordinate geometry.” The first process Tony described uses “coordinate geometry to turn a series of rigid shapes into a smooth animated motion.” To understand what this means, imagine a polygon. The more sides (and therefore, angles) that are added to the polygon, the smoother a surface the greater object begins to take. Once enough sides have been added to an animated figure – whether it is Buzz Lightyear, Lightning McQueen, WALL•E, etc. — it will take on a very realistic, smooth shape. And just as X and Y coordinates are what give ‘coordinate geometry’ its name, animators can manipulate these coordinates with subtraction and addition to give the character a sliding motion. In essence, these two simple forms of math are the foundation upon which Pixar’s computer generated characters are built.

But what if an animator doesn’t just want to move a character, but also change its size? To grow or shrink a computer animated character on screen, Tony says that you need to take the X/Y coordinates that you previously only added and subtracted, and multiply or divide them (to increase or decrease size respectively). What if you want to rotate a part of the character’s body? In this case, trigonometry is applied. Tony stressed the importance of this aspect, as it’s what gives the viewer the impression that a camera angle (the audience’s viewpoint) is moving through a scene, because in an animated film you can’t simply move a camera through an imaginary space that doesn’t exist.

One can see that the subdivision process (i.e. the math behind it) gets more and more complicated with each successive step; if simple shapes are difficult enough, imagine having to simulate physical motion of much more complicated textures like fire and water. For the film Brave, Tony and his team were presented with a unique problem they had never encountered before working on a Pixar film: “Merida’s hair was a particular challenge for the film,” Tony explained, “…her hair was such an important part of the movie, it was almost a separate character in and of itself, so we had to build a special simulator for her hair.”

We have to try to figure out how to deliver new techniques in a way artists can feel good about.

At first, animators developed a system of springs and weights to simulate Merida’s curly hair, which looked fine for the most part. However, some scenes in the film have Merida moving so fast that she pulls 15G’s (which, Tony explained, is more gravitational force than a fighter jet). During those parts, Merida’s hair straightened and flung out, which wasn’t what the director wanted. To counter this, Tony’s team stiffened the springs within Merida’s hair so that they could resist the gravitational force her rapid motion created. This didn’t work either, as her hair looked too stiff when at rest. Finally, a solution was found that helped Merida’s hair look natural both when sitting still and when moving at quick speeds. A “core” part of the hair moved the way hair moves in real life, while the spring and weight system remained stiff around it. This brought Tony to an important point about the line between real and fantastical motion in animated films: “…for us, real physics is kind of a starting point, and then we cheat as we need to, to get the director what they want.” Merida’s hair is a perfect example of this, because Tony and his team were faced with a situation in which they needed to animate something that defied the laws of physics, while still making it appear natural onscreen.

For Tony and his team, this kind of innovative thinking is what they apply to their work everyday, often times solving technical problems only to encounter new ones. “A lot of times my job requires finding new mathematical techniques to become more efficient,” he says, “and artists can often be afraid of new technology.” Just as subdivision is a process in which art is interpreted into math, Tony often also interprets math back into art to help the creative teams he works with. In his words, “We have to try to figure out how to deliver new techniques in a way artists can feel good about.” This constant negotiation between art and math is no small task, as Pixar films take around five years to complete – and often, only two-three of those are spent actually filmingthe first couple of years are focused on story and . development. This is the kind of behind the scenes magic that often goes unnoticed by audiences, but is crucial to the finished product Pixar releases. And when Pixar production needs a technology something made that doesn’t yet exist, it’s people like Tony they turn to.

Pixar logo

In addition to his work in Pixar’s research department, Tony also talked about his outside passions and projects, which he believes are just as important as one’s main profession. For Tony, creating incredible machines and art pieces for the Maker Faire, a wildly popular event for innovators and artists to exchange ideas, is that passion. Tony has worked with his sons on multiple installations for the Faire, including a live flight simulator called the Viper (inspired by the spaceship from the TV show “Battlestar Galactica”), and an eight-foot tall fire-breathing dragon. Even in his spare time, Tony believes that the same attitude he puts into his work at Pixar is useful. He explained that, while kids are taught different subjects in different classes at different times, “In the outside world, all those disciplines come together.” This motivated him to create a series of youth outreach programs focused around creative projects involving math and science, which Tony hopes will encourage kids to become more engaged in the subjects than an average school curriculum ever could.

As Tony told us, “Pixar is in a business it created.” With films like Inside-Out, The Good Dinosaur and this summer’s Finding Dory, Pixar continues its rich tradition of heartfelt storytelling and technical wizardry —and thanks to the hard work of Tony and the whole Pixar team, it will keep doing so for years to come.


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