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When was the last time you were encouraged to touch things during a museum visit? At The Science Behind Pixar, on view at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation through March 18, 2018, visitors are encouraged to crawl on the floor in order to see things from a bug’s perspective, build block robots like Wall-E, and take copious amounts of selfies with beloved movie characters. 

Buzz full

Cynthia Jones, the museum's General Manager, Innovation Experiences, promotes this interactive behavior, asking, “What do you want to play with, what do you want to touch?” during a recent visit to the traveling exhibition that showcases the different technological advancements that have brought iconic Pixar movies to the big screen over the past 20-some years.

Characters like Buzz Lightyear, Dory, Lightning McQueen and Merida defy generation, as Pixar changed what it meant to watch an animated film, bringing humanity and pathos to inanimate objects. More than a few adults cite Up and Toy Story 3 as films that brought tears to their eyes, while children of all ages repeat the catchphrases, “To infinity and beyond!” and “Just keep swimming.” 

But what is it about these drawings that viewers have connected with for more than two decades? How have monsters and rats gone from being feared to beloved? 

modelingThat’s where the science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) comes in. Says Jones about the concepts explained in the exhibit, “Suddenly math is real—’I can see why math matters, and I can see how math is creative,’ and it’s part of the creative process.”

By using scientific themes to show how certain scenes or characters are brought to life, one can see the many different people and skills it takes to make a movie in an interesting and accessible way. 

In Finding Nemo, Pixar staffers studied actual ocean currents, observing how light looks at different depths. Museum visitors can play with lighting and see how that will change the mood of a scene—from happy and upbeat, to dark and ominous. 

And don’t be afraid of the description for bidirectional reflectance distribution function (BRDF for short). BRDF is how light reflects off of a surface, which, in animation, is a critical factor in making these images look lifelike. The Pixar surfacing artists work to “create things that look so real, you think that you can touch it,” a thought had by anyone who wanted to eat the delicacies prepared in Ratatouille. This is realized by playing with how light particles reflect off of matte surfaces—the difference between a shiny new roadster and a rusty old jalopy in Cars is handled through these subtle manipulations, a visible outcome that visitors of all ages can understand. 

When creating their first female lead character in Brave, Pixar’s aim to create a vibrant, energetic and bold adventurer meant using principles from physics class to create a mane of red curls. Designers used springs as models, then used mathematical simulations on a computer, merging them together with “digital hairspray” to give the hair a bounce straight out of a shampoo commercial.

MonstersIncThese lessons are designed with visitors from grades 3-12 in mind, hitting The Henry Ford’s sweet spot of field trips for 4th and 5th graders. However, as Jones notes, “It’s multigenerational, it’s families. It is purposefully designed that if you’re here with your littlest kid and they just run straight to Buzz and it’s a photo op, that’s great, while older kids can sit down and really dig in.” It also demonstrates how the subjects one learns in school are applied in the “real world.”

“We know that building the talent pipeline is a huge piece for this whole region, and our piece starts with schools. Thinking how STEM or STEAM gets actualized in a way that inspires kids, I think this does it.” 

What is an exhibit like The Science Behind Pixar doing at a museum that has recently changed its name to include “American Innovation?” 

According to Brown, that connection is critical. “Pixar is, in and of itself, an incredibly innovative company. Their culture is known for being a culture of innovation. … When we think innovation, we think technology, and we don’t remember that it’s actually thoughts—we are the source of innovation. It’s me being creative, looking at a problem, and then working collaboratively to solve that problem. … This does that everywhere throughout the whole exhibit.” 

The Science Behind Pixar, on view through March 18, 2018, is $5 in addition to museum admission, including for members. Timed tickets suggested, as 200 tickets are allotted per 30 minutes. Several films will be on view throughout the run of the exhibition with the Pixar Film Series at the Giant Screen Experience: Monsters, Inc. through November 4; The Incredibles, November 5-December 2; Toy Story, December 3-January 20; Cars, January 21-February 17; and Wall-E, February 18-March 18. Make Something Saturdays are also inspired by Pixar movies throughout the run of the exhibition.