What's the secret to Pixar's success? Math, of course

By Travis Poppleton

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, March 24 2011 1:31 p.m. MDT

PROVO — It's probably not often that a math lecture fills a theater to capacity.

But last week, when Tony DeRose spoke at the BYU Varsity Theater about “Math and Movies,” people from all walks of life squeezed into the campus venue.

It wasn’t his take on the practical applications of linear algebra that had attracted the many grade-school students and parental guardians — though there were plenty of math majors in the room who nodded their heads to that part of the lecture.

Instead, the diverse crowd probably had something to do with a blue fish named Dori, or that adorable little Boo who ended up in Monstropolis.

“How many here have seen every one of Pixar’s films?” DeRose asked as over half the audience members raised their hands. “How many of you have seen every one of Dreamworks’ fims?” he continued.

When only a few hands dropped, DeRose playfully muttered something under his breath.

You see, DeRose is a senior scientist at Pixar Animation Studios and leader of the company's research group. Pixar continues to maintain a flawless record of both critical and commercial successes, so there’s little that carries the studio’s name that doesn’t excite public interest.

DeRose began the lecture by presenting a slide of a highly complex math theorem, but then explained he was just kidding — much to the relief of many wide-eyed audience members. Then he reintroduced his lecture by explaining the Pixar creative process.

On a surface level, the Pixar formula falls into six basic steps: story, concept art, modeling, rigging, shading and lighting. Each step was discussed as slides and video clips from various creative stages were displayed across the Varsity Theater screen.

DeRose explained how particular teams within Pixar will sync actors’ voices with each slide of a film’s storyboard and then review it to see if the story is working. When it does work, “you forget that you’re looking at sketches,” DeRose explained.

“When the story isn’t working well, you’re painfully aware of the sketches and you start fidgeting in your seat. We spend a huge amount of time doing that.”

After giving attendees an idea of the creative process within Pixar, DeRose introduced the math of it all.

A slide of Gerri, the protagonist of the Oscar-winning short “Gerri’s Game,” was exhibited. While introducing closeups of the animated model, DeRose discussed the difficulties of smoothing a polygonal surface.

Several less-than-practical solutions were presented before DeRose demonstrated how, thanks to computers, Pixar can rapidly run through math equations to plot out thousands of points to reveal smooth, recognizable models. Once the points are defined, they can then be manipulated to bend, stretch and ultimately animate the new creation.

“One model has 300 different controls just in the face. It turns out human faces only have about 30. Our characters are about ten times better than humans,” DeRose quipped.

As the lecture progressed, so did the level of understanding necessary to follow what was being said. It was, after all, a math lecture. But when DeRose finished his prepared material, he had a few minutes to take questions from the audience.

“Can we expect a sequel to 'The Incredibles'?” asked one not-there-for-the-math attendee.

“'The Incredibles' is my favorite movie,” DeRose said. “I would really love to see a sequel. Brad Bird, the writer and director of 'The Incredibles,' currently has no plans to make one. But lots of us beg him daily.”

The audience seemed genuinely appreciative of DeRose’s time, and it was obvious that each member took something different from the experience.

Perhaps one lesson taken might go something like this:

While there are many hypothetical strategies to getting kids excited about mathematics, it seems that attaching the Pixar name to heady college-level discourses is a winning formula.

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