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Behind the Scenes at Pixar

Tony DeRose, winner of a Scientific and Technical Academy Award in 2006, took students to the digital backstage of Pixar Animation during his keynote lecture at the Center for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics (CURM) Conference sponsored by the BYU Department of Mathematics on March 18.

As the leader of Pixar’s research group, DeRose has extensive experience in using math to create art, tell stories, and visit unseen worlds. During a lecture on BYU’s campus, he gave students a small preview of how mathematics makes it all possible.

DeRose, who has a doctorate degree in computer science and a bachelor’s degree in physics, explained how Pixar characters are animated. The explanation involved some math that is more complex than what’s taught in your average high school class, but visually it was fairly easy to understand. Controlling each of the 10,000 points in a character’s body would be extremely difficult for animators. DeRose explained how, through math, they are able to turn the characters into digital puppets — only needing to control about 300 points on the puppet.

“One of our jobs as technologists at Pixar is to build really cool and powerful mathematics underneath, and then build artist’s tools on top of them that let the artists focus on the creative and artistic task,” DeRose said. “The mathematics is just a power tool that turns their high-level artistic input into whatever motion or shape or color variation is desired.”

Pixar movies all start out with story telling. Once the writers have a story idea put together, they create a set of sketches and recordings that explains what the movie will be like. Then, concept artists sketch what the world and characters will look like.

DeRose said that only after all this preliminary work has been done do the animators start. They then begin to work with the mathematicians to digitally create the setting and characters.

Because the majority of their software is created within Pixar, DeRose indicated that there are many interesting job opportunities with a company like Pixar. He said if mathematics majors are interested in this field, they should take as much applied math and linear algebra as they can, learn C++, and take a basic graphics animation class.

At the end of his lecture, DeRose also revealed that his favorite Pixar film is The Incredibles. He said he would love to see a sequel, but that there are currently no plans for a second movie.

By Erik Westesen Posted on