Exhibit Review: The Science of Pixar at the Museum of Science, Boston

I will freely admit I am a Pixar fan. I also volunteered once upon a when at the Museum of Science, back when I was in high school and didn’t know museums were eventually going to take over my professional life. I have to believe, however, that even if neither of these things were true, I would still be really impressed with this exhibit.

We did not enter at 12:20. We entered at 9:20, and this is when we were leaving.

We did not enter at 12:20. We entered at 9:20, and this is when we were leaving.

I can never decide whether I love or hate timed-entry shows; as I’m usually an early-bird, it’s nice to know that I’ll have a little time with lots of space and chances to play with the interactives before things get crowded, but I am not sure how much it helps with traffic once the exhibit gets busy later. (Anybody know if someone’s done a crowd-pattern study on timed vs. untimed entry?)

There’s a lot to like initially on entry: there are a fun set of facts to read if you’re stuck waiting in line, and the entry movie is cool as much for the behind-the-scenes peek at the Pixar offices as it is for the intro to the steps of the computer-graphic-animated-movie-design process. (I especially loved the office that looks like the fuselage of an old plane wreck in the jungle.)

Once inside, as dark as the walls are, it still feels lightsome, as there are big gorgeous graphics of Pixar concept art all over, life-size models of various familiar characters, and brightly lit interactive islands throughout. I’m not a fan of the dark-hall design in general, so I was impressed at how not-dark this one was.

Logistical and Floorplan Choices

This is an exhibit that doesn’t really have an A-B-C flow; given the amount of bouncing around one has to do to find a free monitor or interactive once it gets busy, that’s a good thing. It is initially a little hard to figure out, but once you hit the ‘process in the round’ area that shows you how often elements of a movie move back and forth between the steps (from character design to rendering to animation to sets back to character design and then to lighting, for example), it makes the forth-and-back of the exhibit ‘map’ less troublesome.

I’ll cover interactives in depth next, but from the logistical standpoint they made some excellent choices. Most interactives were in sets of 2-4, so that each island had multiple opportunities for people to play, reducing waiting time and also making the overall density of the exhibit less overwhelming (“oh, these three are all the same, good, I can move on to the next thing”). There was also nice variety in the interactives; some low-tech in amidst all the high-tech, some very simple and others quite complicated, some large-scale that made it easy for multiple people to see/interact together, and some that rewarded close individual attention. There was something to appeal to almost every kind of learner, and several things which were clearly designed with universal accessibility in mind.

Interactives

There were a number of choices I admired in the interactive design of this show. The digital effects were almost always paired with a nearby example of how such a concept works in ‘meatspace,’ and the controls were on the whole intuitive and remarkably sturdy. (I don’t want to know how much programming turns sliding knobs and a choice of less than 5 buttons into easily digestible visible changes on screen, but I am willing to be impressed even without knowing the ‘how.’)

All the screens were captioned, and all the signs had audio wands. Several of the interactives had tactile handles that were the physical embodiment of the shape you were generating on screen. In terms of design for accessibility, I thought this exhibit did really well.

The only time I thought their physical-embodiment of something being described on screen *didn’t* work was in the reconstruction of the coil-within-coil physics of Merida’s hair. The two sets of springs they modeled were equally non-springy, and didn’t really emulate the physics being illustrated at that station. I wanted some dangling slinkies to play with of different materials and construction, instead of standing coils that didn’t move. Otherwise, the physical/virtual pairings were quite impressive.

This station allowed you to play with camera angles from several different cameras, and also allowed you to physically climb underneath for a literal bug's eye view of the constructed set. Simple, effective, great presentation value, and a nice way to tie in both the research Pixar did ahead of A Bug's Life and the directorial choices available when all your cameras are virtual.

This station allowed you to play with camera angles from several different cameras, and also allowed you to physically climb underneath for a literal bug’s eye view of the constructed set. Simple, effective, great presentation value, and a nice way to tie in both the research Pixar did ahead of A Bug’s Life and the directorial choices available when all your cameras are virtual.

A recreation of the paper house that Pixar lighting designers created to test lighting of Carl's house for Up. Behind this were digital interactives that let you play with the virtual lights the same way one could play with physical ones here. There was lots of cool context about the vocabulary of lighting design (ie 'temperature,' etc.) as well as the purpose (emotional effect, helping to pick out the main character in a scene, indicating transitions).

A recreation of the paper house that Pixar lighting designers created to test lighting of Carl’s house for Up. Behind this were digital interactives that let you play with the virtual lights the same way one could play with physical ones here. There was lots of cool context about the vocabulary of lighting design (ie ‘temperature,’ etc.) as well as the purpose (emotional effect, helping to pick out the main character in a scene, indicating transitions).

This was the low-tech version of mapping a surface onto a wireframe object. There was a very simple (frustratingly so, for adults) virtual interactive that allowed you to 'paint' a car hood with different projections, but I actually liked this better, for any number of reasons including the fact that different surfaces on the same shape create very different objects, and because it showed at least a little what kinds of deformations and folds you need to make in a surface texture when putting it on a 3D object.

This was the low-tech version of mapping a surface onto a wireframe object. There was a very simple (frustratingly so, for adults) virtual interactive that allowed you to ‘paint’ a car hood with different projections, but I actually liked this better, for any number of reasons including the fact that different surfaces on the same shape create very different objects, and because it showed at least a little what kinds of deformations and folds you need to make in a surface texture when putting it on a 3D object.

This animation station was one of the few where it helped to have paid attention earlier in the exhibit, to the 'rigging' section. It focused more on speed and range of motion, but was also influenced by the rules of how the character's arm moved, based on the virtual bones and flexibility it had already been given.

This animation station was one of the few where it helped to have paid attention earlier in the exhibit, to the ‘rigging’ section. It focused more on speed and range of motion, but was also influenced by the rules of how the character’s arm moved, based on the virtual bones and flexibility it had already been given.

I loved this. It required teamwork, it had enough variability that even though the arc of the jumping lamp was prescribed, the attitudes and 'energy' of the lamp were all adaptable, and it led to a lot of discussion (albeit also some frustration from impatient parents). The replay function was also very satisfying, as your 'movie' was over very fast!

I loved this. It required teamwork, it had enough variability that even though the arc of the jumping lamp was prescribed, the attitudes and ‘energy’ of the lamp were all adaptable, and it led to a lot of discussion (albeit also some frustration from impatient parents). The replay function was also very satisfying, as your ‘movie’ was over very fast!

This was one of the interactives where I thought the handles for controlling the interactive were more interesting than the activity itself. Each handle was the same shape as the line on the screen which one rotated to make a 3D shape. Very clever!

This was one of the interactives where I thought the handles for controlling the interactive were more interesting than the activity itself. Each handle was the same shape as the line on the screen which one rotated to make a 3D shape. Very clever!

A simple and very familiar interactive (assemble magnetic body parts, this time for robots) with new context; using a certain number of base parts, Pixar designers could generate X number of unique robot combinations (and therefore how many can you?) Context is everything, and some good ideas stay good, even if they feel like they've been done to death.

A simple and very familiar interactive (assemble magnetic body parts, this time for robots) with new context; using a certain number of base parts, Pixar designers could generate X number of unique robot combinations (and therefore how many can you?) Context is everything, and some good ideas stay good, even if they feel like they’ve been done to death.

Telling the Story

At heart, I’m a story person. Pixar is very good at story, of course, and fortunately, this exhibit does a pretty good job of it as well, especially in letting individuals who work at Pixar tell their stories. As much as I enjoyed the interactives (especially before it got too busy!), I really responded to the video interviews with people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds who work at Pixar. They talked about loving or hating math at school, how they got interested in art or computers or both, their geeky hobbies, the ways their jobs and their coworkers inspired them, and generally put not just one human face on the movie making process, but dozens of them. It was adorable and inspiring and hilarious and eyebrow-raising in turns, and it made for good storytelling.

The process of creating Pixar stories, however, was a little muddled. The emphasis of this exhibit was more on the how-it-all-gets-built and not on how-it-all-begins or how-it-all-fits-together, but I did wish for a little more on the inspiration/imagination at the start of the process.

This circular exhibit element allowed you to track the evolution of a scene through the elements of the design and implementation process, but while visually engrossing was a little short on the 'concept and storyboarding' section.

This circular exhibit element allowed you to track the evolution of a scene through the elements of the design and implementation process, but while visually engrossing was a little short on the ‘concept and storyboarding’ section.

A Few Lingering Wishes

The biggest thing missing from this exhibit, my traveling companions and I all agreed, was that there was no point at which they really addressed when and where sound was added, and how it was that that affected the design process. This was a very visual-heavy exhibit, but the visuals only tell part of the story, and we all wanted something that touched on the dialogue and music. How cool would it have been to be able to have a partner exercise where one person reads out and records a set of familiar lines, and the other person has to control the speed at which the character’s mouth moves in order to sync up with the words? What about pairing different lighting scenarios with different underlying music–what’s the difference between sad and creepy? Happy and manic? Dramatic and silly? The lighting might be similar, but the music sets the literal and figurative tone.

(Also, I wanted a full-size Merida to pose with. I settled for Dory.)

IMG_20150823_142732

All told, it was a fun three hours, and I don’t think I’ll look at Merida’s hair, Nemo’s reef, or Wall-E’s post-apocalyptic trash heap the same, which is the mark of an exhibition well-done.

ETA: Another excellent behind-the-scenes exhibit write up can be found here, and it’s well worth the read.

Recyclable Design Challenges

Charles Eames, Ray Eames. Molded Plywood Division, Evans Products Company (Venice, 1943-47). Elephant, 1945.

Charles Eames, Ray Eames. Molded Plywood Division, Evans Products Company (Venice, 1943-47). Elephant, 1945.

With the inspiration of California Design at PEM currently, not to mention the new Maker Lounge, we’ve been focusing on some fun design challenges with recycled materials that I thought I’d share.

Can packing peanuts be strong enough to make a bridge or a tree?

Can packing peanuts be strong enough to make a bridge or a tree?

Packing peanuts are the bane of many people’s existence.  Unless you’re into demonstrations of static electricity or have to ship breakable stuff nearly constantly, they’re a nuisance.

Unless they’re starch packing peanuts, in which case they’re awesome.

Check out what a damp sponge, a pile of starch packing peanuts, and a lot of imagination can do in the hands of some inventive visitors, challenged by our ANC staff:

starchy sculptures 1 starchy sculptures 2

We also had some guests this week from the Green Up initiative working with visitors on energy-efficient design challenges, looking at insulation and ‘energy vampires’ in the home:

green up energy vampires green up insulation challenge

And remember how it’s National Poetry Month and we’ve got the amazing Mass Poetry Festival coming up next weekend?  We’ll be making random poetry generators, invented by yours truly, in addition to our other raft of fun drop-in art making, artist demos, and workshops.

Nouns, adjectives, and verb phrases collaged onto plastic eggs: rotate to create inspiring phrases for poetry starters, and swap halves to create new possibilities!

Nouns, adjectives, and verb phrases collaged onto plastic eggs: rotate to create inspiring phrases for poetry starters, and swap halves to create new possibilities!

Art, Astronomy, and Alien Adaptations

On my recent vacation in Maine, I spent a mesmerizing half hour or longer on the dock in front of our cabin, head tipped all the way back to take in the wealth of stars and splash of Milky Way, unsure whether I was feeling dizzy because of the depth over my head or the lake under my feet.   Add in the fact that it was during the Perseid meteor shower, and you had the recipe for perfect wonder that reminded me why I spent several years growing up convinced I was going to be an astronaut.

Fortunately for those of us who are sadly earthbound, there are folks up there willing to share the wealth: Twitpics from Space.  Not to mention NASA Spots Signs of Life…On Earth, in which some of those nifty NASA folks have figured out how to search for bacteria trapped in ice by satellite.  Next stop, Mars!

I love reading stories about what life is actually like on the International Space Station or for astronauts in general, but I get an almost equal amusement and fascination out of what people *thought* life in space could be…and how many of those ideas are still around in slightly altered forms, like eco-designer Vincent Callebaut’s floating water-purifying resort and eco-refuges for when we lose the battle with climate change (dystopic design at its prettiest).

Hear Auden read “The More Loving One” and read the text of the poem at NPR’s 100th anniversary article on Auden’s birth here.

The night sky has a kind of mystery that sometimes only artists and poets seem to be able to capture…and sometimes science helps solve those mysteries, more than a hundred years later!  Forensic astronomer solves Walt Whitman mystery (Always nice to see those interdisciplinary learners in action!)

Feeling inspired to do some stargazing?  Keep your eyes open and antennae out…the BBC reports that “Alien hunters ‘should look for artificial intelligence'” while scanning the sky.  While you wait for ET to ring the doorbell, bring the search for alien life to your classroom with the web-quest Design a Space Alien, designed for middle school students, and give your studies of earth science and evolutionary biology an extraterrestrial twist.