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.

“Sound Like An Animal” Music and Art for your Wild Ones

February school vacation week has the potential to be the bogey man of a museum programming calendar.  Attendance is seriously weather dependent, weather is seriously unpredictable, and in one week you can have a day with over 2,000 people one day and under 200 the next.  Fortunately, despite some habitually inconvenient New England weather, we had a great week of vacation programming inspired by Beyond Human and from here to ear (the one with the live finches and the electric guitars!)

In addition to great performances and presentations by Curious Creatures, The Loon Lady, Jackson Gillman, and Steve Lechner from The Science Works, we had a lot of fun with our drop-in activities inspired by animal sounds.  We made ‘sonar shakers,’ bull roarers, and bird calls, and people showed a lot of creativity in their decoration of particularly the last two!

Set up for making bird calls: we dispensed rosin from the staff supply table to prevent it from going in small mouths

Set up for making bird calls: we dispensed rosin from the staff supply table to prevent it from going in small mouths

Final bird calls hanging up to dry, ready for a nature walk

Final bird calls hanging up to dry, ready for a nature walk

Painted bullroarers.  Helpful tip: the shorter the string, the easier it is to make that great low buzzing noise!

Painted bullroarers. Helpful tip: the shorter the string, the easier it is to make that great low buzzing noise!

If you’re interested in the directions and background information from these activities, feel free to download the pdf with everything you need! Sounds Like an Animal Activity Directions

A Dynamic Mess of Jingling Things

Despite my oft-stated claim that I find just about everything interesting, I can honestly say that I’ve never been a big fan of quantum physics, except as a useful bit of technobabble in some of my favorite science fiction.  However, what Geordi LaForge, Samantha Carter, and John Crichton hadn’t quite convinced me of, a handful of *real* scientists with the assistance of the Symphony of Science did.  I now really want to go find out what those ’12 particles of matter, 4 forces of energy’ are, and meanwhile, like Rachel Maddow, I can’t stop humming this song.  Enjoy!

More Physics Fun:

“Multiverse” theory suggested by microwave background — My favorite sci-fi plotline strikes again, but this time with the weight of real science behind it, courtesy of the BBC

Exploratorium Science Snacks by Subject — One of my go-to spots for cool experiments with everyday activities.  No quantum physics there, but lots to explore with the 4 forces of energy!

Star Wars Ice and Scientific Mermaid Song: Exploring Sound

My anonymous tipmaster sent me a very cool video earlier this week showcasing the universality of the pentatonic scale.  (Bear with me: it means that anywhere in the world, people watching Bobby McFerrin jump around a stage can actually sing on pitch and together with almost no instruction).  This incredibly cool exploration of sound, music, and the way we think  reminded me that I’d been collecting some very fun sound-related links to share with you here on Brain Popcorn.

A Not So ‘Silent World’

Diving in New England is a relatively quiet business.  Most of the time, it’s your air bubbles, your dive buddy’s air bubbles, and the occasional scrape of gear on rock that accompanies you in the deep.  But not always, and not elsewhere.  Diving in the USVI a few years ago I was thrilled and startled to be surrounded by what seemed like a chorus of marine Morse code, and was informed that there were ‘very talkative shrimp’ on that particular reef.  A recent report highlighted by the Smithsonian suggests “A Noisy Reef is a Healthy Reef,” which is a fascinating new look at ways to measure the health of communities in endangered waters.

For most of us, the ‘sound of ice’ is skates carving up the surface, or possibly that sharp pop you get when you drop an ice cube into a glass of lukewarm juice.  If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the land of glaciers and icebergs, maybe you also think of the great rumble and splash of a calving glacier.  But what about a lake in winter?  Thoreau certainly noticed interesting sounds at his spot by Walden Pond:

The cracking and booming of the ice indicate a change of temperature. One pleasant morning after a
cold night, February 24th, 1850, having gone to Flint’s Pond to spend the day, I noticed with surprise, that when I struck the ice with the head of my axe, it resounded like a gong for many rods
around, or as if I had struck on a tight drum-head. The pond began to boom about an hour after sunrise, when it felt the influence of the sun’s rays slanted upon it from over the hills; it stretched
itself and yawned like a waking man with a gradually increasing tumult, which was kept up three or four hours. It took a short siesta at noon, and boomed once more toward night, as the sun was
withdrawing his influence. In the right stage of the weather a pond fires its evening gun with great regularity.

Read more from Thoreau’s Walden here.

If you can’t make it out to a pond when the weather is perfect, then listen to some amazing ice sounds from the warmth of your own desk, with sound artist Andreas Bick’s recordings, or check out compositions played on instruments made of ice by Terje Isungset.

Sounds Like a Fairytale

The Voice of the Little Mermaid — How might the Little Mermaid have sounded under water?  If, like certain people who shall remain nameless, you’ve ever tried humming in the swimming pool to find out, here’s a way to explore a little further.  An opera singer has actually performed most of an opera, singing underwater, and discusses her technique and the changes in the sound at the link above.  Very cool–but hard on the costumes, I should think!

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut – Did you ever notice that when listening to the radio or the TV in the background, you could still get a sense of the meaning even without catching all the words?  Try reading this intro to “Little Red Riding Hood” aloud with a ‘storytelling voice’ and see how far you get.  Listen to the narrator on the Exploratorium’s page if you’re stumped, and find the rest of the story there too.

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.


Music, Accidentally On Purpose

*waves* Hello All!  I have returned from my trip to Italy and essentially recovered from the Italian cold I brought back with me, and I’m back on track to keep bringing you fresh Brain Popcorn.  Today’s post celebrates unusual music.

ASIMO conducts the Detroit Symphony. Click for story.

Music is a great interdisciplinary doorway.  Though I ran as far as possible from the calculations necessary for the ‘physics of music’ class they offered in undergrad, the fact remains that music and physics *are* closely linked, and so are music and art, music and history, music and literature, music and myth, music and….you get the refrain.  Today we’re going to focus on a few science connections.

Gravity Makes Music!

Gravité from Renaud Hallée: check out some very cleverly edited percussion work with falling tennis balls, forks and knives, televisions, basketballs, and light sticks.  It reminds me a lot of the number “Trashing the Camp” by Phil Collins, from Disney’s Tarzan.  (Thanks to Rob over on Politics et Alia Sensae for the heads up!)

For a slightly more complicated set of interactions (with some entertaining moments and some real physics –there’s a Newton’s Cradle in there!) check out the Rube-Goldberg-inspired “This Too Shall Pass” by OK Go.  Once you’ve watched it once and have stopped laughing, go again and keep your eyes out for levers, weights and counterweights, wedges, and a number of other simple machines.

Vegetables as instruments?

Well, it beats eating them… If you missed my earlier link to the ViennaVegetable Orchestra, here it is.  This is a great way to talk about materials engineering (what qualities are they looking for when they pick their vegetables?  How do they change those materials to get the sound they want?), and also just to discuss the ways people make noise (beating, blowing through a tube or over a tube, plucking, shaking…how do these veggie instruments resemble or differ from what a regular orchestra/band/jam session uses?).

Did you know? The palm cockatoo is known to beat hollow logs with sticks to make loud drumming sounds. ~courtesy of @AMNH, the American Museum of Natural History’s Twitter feed

Animal Music–apparently not confined to cetaceans and songbirds!  (Does anybody else have the lines from Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb running through their heads yet?  “Many more monkeys drumming on drums! Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum!”)

Earth Music

Luray Caverns Stalacpipe

The Stalacpipe Organ at Luray Caverns, photo from their website

Three years/2500 attempts = 37 formations/5 octaves = The Stalacpipe Organ.  There are so many cool paths you can take from here, looking at caves and earth science, spelunking, Virginia history, invention of musical instruments, more math and physics of sound, inspiration for creating your own tube-length-instruments.  Or just check out the site for Luray Caverns and play the audio clip.

And finally, for sheer amusement value, “Flight of the Bumblebee” played on an iPad.  Is this cheating?   Having played this piece on the flute, I’m going to say yes.  If you’re not out of breath by the end, it doesn’t count.  🙂

Brighten Your Day

It’s been raining in New England, have you heard?  I blame Chac, the Maya god of rain, who is currently taking up residence in the Peabody Essex Museum… (Amusingly, so does The Salem News.)

So if you’ve got a case of the grays, here’s a collection of fun things to lighten up your day!

“Bright Ideas: Light Bulbs Stimulate Insights” — “New research finds exposure to a bare, illuminated light bulb — a universal symbol of bright ideas — is a catalyst to reaching insights. ” (Ah, but does it work with CFLs?)

Re-using Lightbulbs as Mini-Terrariums Surprisingly pretty! And a neat statement about going green.  (Definitely does not work with CFLs! Can you imagine a teeny tiny twisted terrarium?  You can?  Good.  Now say that back to me five times fast.)

24,000 LED's, but no glass slippers

Designer Duo Create Dress with 24,000 LED’s — “We used the smallest full-color LEDs, flat like paper, and measuring only 2 by 2 mm,” say designers Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz… “The circuits are extra-thin, flexible and hand-embroidered on a layer of silk in a way that gives it stretch so the LED fabric can move like normal fabric with lightness and fluidity.”

How-to’s and Lesson Plans on Light and Waves from the New Zealand Physics Teachers’ Resource Bank.  Lots of very cool stuff here, including a very small-scale demonstration of eye resolution and color mixing, which would be an interesting tie in to a discussion of Impressionism and pointillism, I think, as well as an explanation of how TV’s and monitors work.

lilac chaser illusion

Look steadily at the black center of the circle. What happens to the circle of dots? Blink a few times. What happens? Click the picture for an explanation.

20 Amazing Optical Illusions — The Lilac Chaser above is #13 on the list.

Ideabox: Spools and Spindles

No princesses were injured in the creation of this post.

It’s time for another Ideabox–this time, on CD spindles and the many uses thereof, with a guest appearance by a few spools of thread.

ideabox spools

I think CD spindles are a remarkable piece of design: they’re the kind of thing that do what they’re supposed to very well, and then sit there and taunt you, gathering dust because they LOOK like you should be able to do something else with them.  If you have a few of these lying around that you’re looking to ‘upcycle’ into something new and useful, here are some ideas to get you started.  (Instructables was a really valuable resource in assembling this post.  You’ll see what I mean.)

First, a video that gives you four options in what feels like forty seconds, just to get you thinking:

Next, for the folks who can never get too organized:

  • The ‘you’re kidding, someone wrote instructions for that?’ Headphone Holder.  (Yes, they did.  But just because it’s easy and not exactly aesthetically pleasing doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid idea!)
  • The ‘I know a techie sort with too much jewelry’ CD Spindle Earring Holder.  (I know an artist who could really use this kind of display stand…)
CD Spindle Sandwich

Bagelwich Buffer

CD Spindles for the Plant and Animal Worlds:

  • Flower Planters — this is a particularly cool idea if you’re trying to do a science experiment that allows you to watch the roots of things grow.  Visible carrots!
  • Mushroom Storage Case — I wasn’t sure whether to put this under ‘plants,’ ‘organization,’ or ‘huh?’ but it’s cute.
  • High Speed Silent Hamster Wheel — For the fleet of foot, but not the faint of heart.

For the Electrically Savvy:

  • CD Spindle Lamp — Gorgeous, actually.  And using an LED or CFL bulb would make it even safer.  I’d love to see a version that took up less horizontal footprint though, for the sake of those of us who live in small spaces.
  • Water-Powered Tesla Turbine — There are a number of variations to this idea provided by ‘mrfixits’ on Instructables.  They’re all fascinating in a ‘how do you come up with these things?’ way.  I love the idea of using recycled materials and water power and magnets to talk about generating electricity, though.  (And on that note, a similarly cool variation, A Pringles Can Wind Turbine)

And finally,

Spools get to play too:

Detail from “After Vermeer 2” 2006, by Devorah Sperber. Click for link to artist’s statement.