To Infinity and Beyond! Exploring the Science Behind Pixar
August 8, 2018

I was three years old when Pixar released Toy Story.

I was introduced to Flick from A Bug’s Life when I was five. At eight, I fell in love with the big blue furry monster, Sully, from Monsters Inc. I grew up with Pixar, its adorable characters, amazing animation, and storylines that hold deep meanings that even adults can understand and appreciate. Pixar characters became my very best friends.

So when I heard that Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was hosting the exhibition, The Science Behind PixarI knew I had to go. 

As a self-proclaimed ‘museum nerd’, I always try to see as much in a museum as I can in one day. But that’s like trying to fit a month’s worth of clothes into a weekend suitcase. This time, however, I decided to just attend the Pixar exhibit to make the most of my time — and I’d encourage die-hard Pixar fans to do the same. Take the time to enjoy the experience without the rush to move on to the next thing!

Julia standing in front of 5 12 foot high banners featuring, Merida from Brave, Sully from Monsters Inc., Buzz from Toy Story, Joy from Inside Out, and Coco from Coco

With that said, here are my Top 8 favorite parts of this exhibition:

  1. Two galleries. I’m not sure if every institution lays out this exhibition in the same manner, but MSI did it right. This exhibit has A LOT of content. By splitting the content into two separate galleries, it allows visitors to take a break before visiting the second half (especially if you really want to visit a different area of the museum). In addition, entrance to the first gallery is controlled to limit the number of visitors at one time.
  2. Photo-ops. Life-size Pixar characters? I’m in! These photo-ops fill wait time and create something fun and memorable for all ages.
  3. Interactivity. There are plenty of touchscreen interactives that allow visitors to learn what it takes to animate, add texture, manipulate lighting, and make elements like hair and grass move just right. There are also plenty of opportunities for very young children to interact with physical objects, such as building magnetic robots.
  4. Text. Highly technical concepts are presented in this exhibition — rigging, lighting, virtual modeling, programming, and set design. And yet all of the text is presented in easy-to-understand phrases. Standing video stations with commentary by actual Pixar employees helped to fill in the gaps of information.
  5. Flow. The flow of the exhibition is ‘station-based’.  That means self-standing stations are dedicated to specific concepts. This approach allows visitors to sit and learn about each element in no particular order. In addition, there are duplicate interactives at each station. Sometimes there are three separate touchscreen kiosks displaying the exact same activity, or eight hands-on magnetic robot building stations. This drastically reduces the amount of wait time at each station.
  6. Dwell time. All of the touchscreen interactives in this exhibition allow visitors to ‘play the role’ of an animator just enough to understand the general idea. Content can be customized within a short time frame. I would say most visitors spend 2-3 minutes at each station.
  7. ADA accessibility. I give high praises to the The Museum of Science, Boston, the creators of this exhibition, for making ADA accessibility a priority. All of the kiosks include free-standing stools that are easily moved to allow a wheelchair access. All videos are captioned. And each video station, featuring Pixar employees, have speaker audio, but also have a small phone that can be used to listen to the audio if needed. There’s also an audio button that will read text aloud on each kiosk.
  8. STEM oriented. This exhibition is clearly STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) focused. The creators did an incredible job of making math and science ‘cool’ by relating the concepts back to the beloved characters we see on screen. The concepts are tangible. For example, visitors can see the results of complicated mathematical algorithms and geometric coding in the way blades of grass in a field or hair on someone’s head behave. 

Not-so-favorite parts of the exhibition:

  1. What about script writers, voice over talent, and music production? As an employee at a creative media company, I know the talent and importance of script writers and audio engineers. I would have appreciated just a slight nod to the creative minds who write scripts, produce voice over, and write the musical scores of every Pixar movie. While the exhibition was STEM focused, an acknowledgement to other creative roles would have been nice.
  2. Team-oriented interactives. I feel like there was a missed opportunity to highlight the teamwork that’s necessary to pull off a large exhibition like this. There were no multi-touch tables and no group activities. It would have been a great lesson to work together to create something, just like the real team at Pixar has to do.
  3. A gap in levels of understanding. While the animated characters appeal to a very young audience, the content and messaging is very technical and caters to a more mature audience. Many kids just wanted to touch buttons, not learn about what the buttons do.
  4. No take-aways. At Silver Oaks, we’re constantly trying to come up with new ways visitors can take their experiences with them. This exhibition did not provide any opportunities to email creations back home, or print anything out.



And I realize that I’m a millennial who grew up with these characters and can recite movie scripts in their entirety by heart — so I’m biased! But not only did I get to experience the characters and sets from my favorite movies in real life, I also learned about the technicalities of how the movies were made and how the characters came to life. All the intricacies of every single element were discussed, which added a level of appreciation to the creative minds behind these beloved films. At the beginning of the exhibition a quote from the President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, Ed Catmull was displayed on one of the walls, that spoke to me:

At Silver Oaks, we solve problems every day. And we’re creative in how we solve those problems. That’s what I love about working at Silver Oaks. We’re creative people using creativity to solve problems. 

The Science Behind Pixar is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago through January 6, 2019. You don’t want to miss it!

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