By Matthew T. Murray
From the golden age of my childhood to my being at the cusp of manhood, Pixar films have remained a constant. I can’t even divulge the number of times I have seen “Finding Nemo” for fear of social suicide (I will give you a rough estimate: somewhere around 100).
You could imagine my thrill when I heard that Stony Brook would be bringing Pixar Research Group’s Tony DeRose in for a special presentation on “Math in the Movies.” Although I am remotely far from a mathematician and barely remember the times table, I could not wait to hear what magic would be revealed.
DeRose broke down the ways that the movies are constructed on March 7 at the Simons Center. There are five, detail-oriented steps — the story reel, the layout, the animation, the crowd simulation and the final pixels. I will spare you overt details regarding this progression for fear of losing you as the lecture isn’t captivating in words but rather as watching a slideshow of these five steps illustrated by one sequence.
DeRose chose a scene from “Finding Nemo,” in which Dory is being her aloof and jovial self asking where Sydney happens to be. Watching this scene with the five steps — each one builds on the previous one in a drastic way — made me appreciate Pixar movies more than I thought possible. It is a lot of work — in fact, DeRose explained that the movies take about four years to produce (just as a little aside, the average production period is about two years for Hollywood cinema).
The takeaway was supposed to be math and how geometric modeling is the foundation the movie is built open. My takeaway was of how intricate the worlds in these movies are. When thinking of Pixar, we think of Buzz Lightyear, Nemo and the wrinkling, bad ass from “Up.” However, DeRose pointed out that beyond the characters, the worlds in these movies remain embedded in our heads as the plot-defining backdrop. Where would “Toy Story” be without Andy’s suitably juvenile room? Could “Finding Nemo” work without the realistic deep blue sea environment and cast of random sea creatures who sporadically pop in to the environment? (Sidenote: the team traveled to Australia and sketched while scuba-diving to bring the underwater world to life). It is the worlds and not just the characters that are crucial to the movie magic.
Moreover, the crowd at this lecture was a sight to see. Doe-eyed children watched on with their parents smiling as geometry was discussed. Mathletes and bespectacled students at Stony Brook watched on with the same adoration easily reserved for NBA sensations. It was refreshing seeing people excited about math and science — even though I run as fast as I can at the mere sight of a calculator. DeRose also mentioned his Young Makers Program — an initiative where youngsters apply these skills to whimsical innovations and bring visions to life through math and science.
Knowing the time and effort beyond these movies, I will never look at a Pixar movie the same way. As DeRose puts it, “Like any creative process, its sweating blood the whole way.”