Do the math: Putting emotion into digital motion at Pixar

Pixar senior scientist Tony DeRose, who leads a master class on animation techniques on Thursday, says everything changed in 1986, when John Lasseter used computer graphics to make the bouncing lamp and ball movie, Luxo Jr. Photo: Courtesy Virginia Film Festival Pixar senior scientist Tony DeRose, who leads a master class on animation techniques on Thursday, says everything changed in 1986, when John Lasseter used computer graphics to make the bouncing lamp and ball movie, Luxo Jr. Photo: Courtesy Virginia Film Festival

Tony DeRose, senior scientist at Pixar Animation Studios, wants students to know that the math and science they must learn in school really is helpful. It’s applicable in their activities, games and movies, and DeRose is holding a master class during the Virginia Film Festival to drive home this point. Joining him will be Earl Mark of the UVA School of Architecture and Sara Maloni of the UVA Department of Mathematics, who respectively have published research into digital animation and forms of geometry.

The purpose of the seminar is to “show how various math and science concepts are used in making a Pixar film,” DeRose says. “We’ll pull back the covers to show some of the techniques and disciplines that we use to bring our characters to life and tell our stories.”

Tony DeRose joined Pixar just as the first Toy Story movie was about to premiere. For more than 20 years he was charged with researching problems that needed to be solved so that the worldwide leader in animated films could improve its movies and their emotional impact on audiences.

“Just to see a character on the screen requires a lot of different formulas, and the branches of mathematics, computer science and art have to come together,” DeRose says.

Pixar does much work on improving visuals in the area of physical simulation programs, such as the motion of clothing, water and smoke or the bulging and stretching of muscles. The studio creates animated characters that are stylized and lifelike, but that do not aim to appear precisely as human, DeRose explains.

Special effects in movies with actors, however, have a different challenge when they attempt to create a passable human on the screen, DeRose notes. He gave a hypothetical example of the Star Wars franchise trying to generate a new Carrie Fisher through computer graphics.

“Because humans are so used to looking at other humans, we are attuned to the slightest subtleties,” he says. “It is very hard to create a virtual character that is indistinguishable from the human. It ends up being creepy.” DeRose and colleagues call that quality of creepiness, when you don’t quite get to the real human, the “uncanny valley.”

Asked about virtual reality as it is now, he says it is analogous to the computer graphics field in the mid-1980s. Back then, “we had the feeling computer graphics would be good for science and engineering visualization purposes, but we really hadn’t demonstrated that it could be used for emotional storytelling.” Then in 1986 came John Lasseter, who used computer graphics to make the bouncing lamp and ball movie called Luxo Jr.

“Virtual reality hasn’t had its Luxo Jr. moment yet,” DeRose explains.

In recent months, DeRose has taken on a new role in education and outreach for Pixar. The programs include Pixar in a Box for those interested in exploring and creating, the Young Makers Program and a 10,000-square-foot traveling science exhibition. The payoff is enthusiasm that becomes a vocation.

In leading research at Pixar, DeRose realized how satisfying it can be “to study mathematics and computer science to create software programs to give to artists to turn into something that everyone on the planet might enjoy.”

“Mathematicians rarely get that kind of exposure,” DeRose says. “It’s a chance to touch everyone’s lives.”—Mary Jane Gore


The Luxo Jr. moment

Deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, Luxo Jr. (1986), a two-minute animated film, was a game changer because of its inaugural use of procedural animation, shadow maps and its ability to convey emotion. Originally intended as a way to demonstrate computer graphic capabilities, the short was the first CGI movie to earn an Academy Award nomination, and the lamp has became a mascot for Pixar Animation Studios.

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