The Science Behind Pixar

I did a Mike Wazowski visual joke

Hello. This is the point where I’ve come back from a press trip and tell you what I managed to do during my wait for the plane home! This time: The Science Behind Pixar exhibition at the California Science Center!

Mostly I wanted to flag it up because if you’re in the area you should go see it if at all possible – it’s charming but also expresses complicated technical ideas in way that kids and grownups without the specific background experience can get to grips with. It’s also really cool to go to if you have an interest in STEM communication for the same reason – it makes complicated/abstract concepts into these tangible and manageable experiences.

To explain what I mean a bit better, the exhibition breaks the process of creating a Pixar movie into sections which you learn about in an intro movie, and then you’re free to move around those sections in the show itself. There are bits about rigging where you can mess with jointed arms to try to recreate a pose, bits about extrusion where you pull a lever and it shows a 3D shape being created by pulling that 2D shape along a line, there’s a part about 3D co-ordinates where you can move a ping pong ball in 3D space and press a button to mark its current co-ordinates, tracing a shape on a screen.


You’ve got little cameras you can move around a nature scene, a statue of Wall-E that teaches you about depth of field, a model of Dory you can pose with as you experiment with coloured light, a little desk lamp you can use to make your own stop-motion animation, a time-lapse interactive video that show you what rendering means, there are screens full of sliders that teach you about how to make grass generate differently or how different types of light make for different moods.

It’s such a delightful and fascinating exhibition, and one of my favourite things was seeing all of the little kids start to get to grips with these ideas really easily. One section teaches you about shaders and textures and all of that surface creation stuff, and part of it was about having a plain circle and using different options to make it look like a puffy, textured football and then a clear crystal ball. Another bit gave you a wedge-shaped block of metal and you had different cloth coverings you could dress the wedge up in, making it a slice of cheese, then a piece of cake and maybe a wodge of watermelon.

This was the point at which I had a little cry from excitement

It was just so tactile and approachable! I really hope it tours or, failing that, that they translate some of it into a book. That was the big thing I felt was missing. At the end of UK exhibitions you pretty much always get the option of buying the exhibition catalogue which has illustrations of the show and essays about it or explanations, so that you can kind of take something of the experience away with you as this reference book. I like being able to have that as a reminder of an ephemeral show and it was a sad moment when I realised there wasn’t one for The Science Behind Pixar.

Anyway! Go see it if you can. It’s charming and accessible.

This article was originally written for the RPS Supporter Program.


  1. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    That is a fantastic idea! I enjoy fiddling around with modeling here and there, so I’m already enthusiastic about it for the sake of sharing the joy with others. But rigging, posing, animation… That stuff still seems part sorcery to me, and I would love to try a more hands-on approach to learning about it. I hope the exhibit tours, too.

    I’d also be curious to see how the experience might translate to VR, but I suspect the current dearth of tactile feedback there would take away a great chunk of the intuitiveness…

  2. phelix says:

    This is wonderful and I am glad Pixar took the time to explain these concepts in layman’s terms.
    Many moons ago, I messed around with Blender and semi-succesfully taught myself the concepts involved (rigging and posing, rendering, coordinates, materials, compositing, etc etc etc) with the invaluable help of BlenderNation and Andrew Price’s instructional videos. I eventually gave up because Real LifeĀ® got in the way, as it has a habit of doing, but I can’t help wondering if I could’ve stuck through had I been introduced to the world of CGI in the way that this expo seems to do. Oh, how I wish for a Ctrl-Z button in real life…

    • jezcentral says:

      I know almost everyone would like to reboot the last 20 years of their lives, but oh, to be 20 years younger now! When I see what is available to today’s teens and twenty-somethings*, I’m so happy that those opportunities are there, and a little sad that it is too late for me.

      *Not including Stretch Armstrongs, walking to school and house-ownership.

  3. FriendlyFire says:

    While this may not be quite the same feel, there’s always a very cool collab by Pixar and Khan Academy called Pixar in a Box which explains many of those concepts through Khan Academy’s excellent instructional website format.

    Disclaimer: I interned at Pixar with many of the people who worked on this, and they’re all really nice folks so I figured I’d point more people to it! Oh, and if you’re wondering: yeah, the campus is as crazy as it looks like in the intro video.

    • fabulousfurrygingerfreakbrothers says:

      Khan Academy is brilliant, and so are Pixar, so I’m definitely going to check that out. Thanks!

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      Philippa Warr says:

      Oh! That’s the intro movie they play at the start of the exhibition :D