This summer, visitors to the Museum of Science, Boston will be able to explore the science and technology behind some of the most successful animated films of all time, with the world premiere of The Science Behind Pixar. This interactive 10,000-square-foot exhibition showcases science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts used by the artists and computer scientists who help bring Pixar’s award-winning films to the big screen. Created by the Museum of Science and Pixar Animation Studios, with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the exhibit features more than 40 interactive elements demonstrating science and computational thinking that enables the creativity and artistry of Pixar’s storytellers.
Eight distinct sections within the exhibition focus on key steps of the filmmaking process:
- sets and cameras
The exhibit is designed to provide a unique view of the production pipeline and concepts used at Pixar every day. Visitors can engage in and learn about the filmmaking process through hands-on activities inspired by Pixar films that range from the first-ever computer animated feature film Toy Story, which opened nearly two decades ago, to Pixar’s newest film Inside Out, released in June 2015.
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“The Science Behind Pixar is a behind-the-scenes look at how our movies are made,” said Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. “The interactive exhibition gives people the opportunity to learn about the jobs our filmmakers do every day and tackle similar problems. It's a great demonstration of how much creativity and imagination is involved in the science, technology, engineering, art and math thinking essential to our filmmaking process.”
The Science Behind Pixar offers a variety of hands-on activities designed to help visitors to understand the STEM concepts behind the films in a fun, engaging format. To better understand the science and math that goes into creating the worlds and characters of Pixar’s films, visitors hear first-hand from members of the studios’ production teams. They also are invited to experience different roles within the production pipeline, through screen-based activities and physical interactive exhibits.
In the sets and cameras section, for example, visitors discover how a bugs-eye view was achieved for A Bug’s Life, through camera angles and large-set design within the computer. They can envision how digital sculptures are created based on sketches from artists in the modeling section, and explore lighting to solve challenges similar to what Pixar artists faced in creating animated water with virtual light in Finding Nemo. The rigging section showcases how the models are given a virtual skeleton to enable the animators to add movement and, in the surfaces section, visitors can immerse themselves in the techniques behind adding color and texture to every surface in a film.
“Throughout the exhibition, visitors will engage in hands-on, screen-based, and physical activities that let them explore the computational thinking skills behind Pixar’s process in a compelling and participatory way,” said Ioannis Miaoulis, Museum president and director. “The Science Behind Pixar explores the creativity and artistry of the Pixar filmmakers, highlighting how computers are used as a filmmaking tool. The exhibition puts you into the role of each aspect of the Pixar filmmaking process, and we hope visitors will increase their knowledge and understanding of the core STEM content behind computer animation.”
The traveling museum exhibition’s organizers believe that it has the potential not only to stimulate awareness and practice of computational thinking skills, but also to stimulate capacity, interest and self-efficacy for computing and computing careers among diverse individuals who may not otherwise have exposure to computational thinking.
“‘Computational thinking’ is the term used to describe a set of problem-solving skills in which a problem is broken down into variables and all possible solutions are considered — much like a computer would do — to help to ensure the correct decision is made. Increasingly, computational thinking is valued across a wide range of disciplines and efforts to cultivate computational thinking are critical,” said Jim Kurose head of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at NSF. “The Science Behind Pixar provides an engaging, research-based means to do so across a range of learners.”
An NSF award, “Building Computational Thinkers through Informal Exhibit Experiences,” which was presented to Clara Cahill of the Museum of Science in 2013 is helping to ensure that design strategies for select exhibits in The Science Behind Pixar build computational thinking skills, especially for middle and high school learners. Exhibits designed in this project support visitors to engage with the steps of algorithmic problem solving and to evaluate the efficiency and correctness of algorithms.
Cahill and her team aimed to identify how museum exhibitions can help novice learners make sense of and interact with computational thinking tools, problem solving strategies and technical solutions. Six components of the exhibition designed by Cahill's team teach visitors to break complex problems into smaller elements that are easier to understand. This process, known as decomposition, is a critical part of computational problem solving.
The NSF research study was prefaced with rigorous, iterative prototyping and formative evaluation with museum audiences, including diverse learners from grades 6-12. The testing focused on improving learning outcomes, engagement, usability and accessibility. After each round of prototyping and formative evaluation with museum audiences, iterative changes were made to the software, graphics, physical design, labels, and/or the user experience design in order to improve the visitor experience.
Overall, nearly 500 visitors participated in the evaluation efforts for these select exhibits, which ensured the exhibits in the show met their intended educational goals.
“Preliminary findings from the first phase of our research were used to inform the design of learning supports to help students engage in the kinds of sophisticated thinking and learning strategies used by more experienced computer programmers,” said Cahill. “Preliminary findings from the second phase of the research suggest that the exhibition has the potential not only to stimulate awareness and practice of computational thinking skills, but also to increase self-efficacy and interest for computing and computing careers among diverse learners who may not otherwise have exposure to computational thinking.”
Support for The Science Behind Pixar
Through strategic fundraising initiatives as part of the Museum’s $250 million capital campaign, The Science Behind Pixar has received $4.75 million to support exhibition development and fabrication. The Science Behind Pixar has drawn lead support from Google, whose $1 million grant provided essential support for exhibition development, Museum trustees Rick Burnes, Kurt Melden and Elizabeth Riley, members of the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative (SMEC), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Microsoft is the local sponsor of the Science Behind Pixar premiere.
Admission to The Science Behind Pixar is by timed ticket only and includes a separate ticket for general Museum of Science Exhibit Halls admission that can be used on the same day or within six months: $29 adults, $27 seniors (60+), and $26 children (3-11). Advance ticket reservations are recommended.
After January 10, 2016, The Science Behind Pixar will begin a five-year, 10-city national tour, first traveling to the Franklin Institute, followed by the California Science Center, Science Museum of Minnesota and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, as well as other venues. Over its lifespan, the exhibition is expected to be viewed by at least one million visitors.
About the Museum of Science, Boston
One of the world's largest science centers and Boston's most attended cultural institution, the Museum of Science, Boston introduces about 1.5 million visitors a year to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) via dynamic programs and hundreds of interactive exhibits. Founded in 1830, the Museum was first to embrace all the sciences under one roof. Reaching over 20,000 teens a year worldwide via the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, the Museum also leads a 10-year, $41 million National Science Foundation-funded Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network of science museums. Its National Center for Technological Literacy’s engineering curricula have reached an estimated 83,800 teachers and 7.7 million students nationwide.
About Pixar Animation Studios
Pixar Animation Studios, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, is an Academy Award-winning film studio with world-renowned technical, creative and production capabilities in the art of computer animation. Creator of some of the most beloved animated films of all time, including Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Cars, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL•E, Up, Toy Story 3 and Brave, the Northern California studio has won 30 Academy Awards and its films have grossed more than $8.7 billion at the worldwide box office to date.
For Further Information
- The Science Behind Pixar: http://www.mos.org/exhibits/the-science-behind-pixar
- NSF Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings: https://www.nsf.gov/div/index.jsp?org=DRL