The Science Behind Pixar

Everybody has a favorite Pixar film, but what it takes to make one is a mystery to most fans. Now the ingenuity behind the magic comes to light in the new exhibition The Science Behind Pixar, opening at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on Friday, October 11. This immersive experience explores the science, technology, engineering, art, and math concepts used at Pixar Animation Studios every day to bring their beloved films and characters to life.

Movie theater audiences witnessed a filmmaking revolution in late 1995 when Pixar released Toy Story. The movie was the first of its kind—a feature-length computer-animated production—and critics and the general public alike were enthralled to see something so fresh and groundbreaking on the big screen. Nearly 24 years and 21 box office hits later, Pixar continues to impress and delight.

Each section in The Science Behind Pixar focuses on a step in the filmmaking process—modeling, rigging, surfaces, sets and cameras, animation, simulation, lighting, and rendering—delivering an unparalleled view of the production pipeline used by the Pixar artists and computer scientists. Guests will enjoy more than 50 interactive elements, hear first-hand from the studio’s production teams in video profiles, and come face-to-face with re-creations of popular characters, including Buzz Lightyear, Dory, Mike and Sulley, Edna Mode, and WALL•E.

These are just some of the activities included in the experience:

  • Build a robot inspired by the ones in WALL•E.
  • Discover how a bug’s-eye view was achieved for A Bug’s Life, through camera angles and large-set design within the computer.
  • Create a virtual 3D shape and play it in a 360-degree view.
  • See and touch scale models of many of the beloved Pixar characters.
  • Explore lighting challenges, similar to what Pixar artists faced in creating animated water in Finding Nemo.
  • Try your hand at stop-motion animation of a jumping lamp, like the one in Pixar’s iconic logo, and watch a short film of what you produced.
  • Discover how models are given a virtual skeleton so the animators can add movement.
  • Become immersed in the techniques used to add color and texture to every surface in a film.
  • Take your photo with human-sized re-creations of many of your favorite Pixar characters.

“We are excited about bringing this unique experience from Pixar Animation Studios to the Colorado community,” said George Sparks, President and CEO of the Museum. “Pixar films are one of the most inspiring examples of how science, technology, engineering, art, and math can intersect with creativity and imagination to bring joy and awe to people of all ages.” 

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At-a-Glance Information

WHEN: October 11, 2019–April 5, 2020
WHERE: Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver, dmns.org
HOURS: Open 9 a.m.–5 p.m., daily, with extended hours at various times. Closed December 25.
TICKETS: Timed tickets required and advance reservations encouraged. Tickets available at 303.370.6000 or dmns.org/pixar. Guests pay $29.95 adult, $24.95 senior (age 65+), $22.95 junior (ages 3–18). Save $1 by booking online. Students receive 10 percent off adult admission with their ID. All tickets include general admission. Museum members receive discounted admission. If you need to reschedule your tickets, please call Guest Services at 303.370.6000 at least 24 hours in advance of your scheduled time. A $5 per request rescheduling fee will be added to your order when you reschedule The Science Behind Pixar tickets.
GROUP SALES: Discounted tickets are available with advance reservations for groups of 10 or more. Contact 303.370.6000 or [email protected]
PARKING: Parking is free and can be challenging during popular times. Alternative transportation is encouraged. Bike racks are available, and Lyft offers $5 off three rides for new users with the code DMNSNEW.
ORGANIZERS: This exhibition was developed by the Museum of Science, Boston in collaboration with Pixar Animation Studios. © Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved. Used under authorization.


The Science Behind Pixar exhibition is an immersive experience that explores how Pixar Animation Studios brings their beloved films and characters to life.

MODELING: Digital sculpting creates virtual 3D models
Character design starts with artists who create sketches and clay sculptures called maquettes to get each character just right. A digital modeler then creates a virtual 3D model of the character, sometimes digitally scanning the maquette. The final model is a virtual digital wireframe of points and the edges that connect them.

RIGGING: Digital rigs make movement possible
Riggers create rigs, or the virtual bones, joints, and muscles for models. Rigs specify the relationships between body parts so that bending a knee will raise the foot, but not move the hands. A good rig allows the animators to create poses easily and efficiently. Without the right controls, the model won’t move the way it should. Too much flexibility makes posing the model too time consuming.

SURFACES: Appearance is controlled separately from shape
The way something looks tells a story. What is it made of? Is it new or old? Well cared for or neglected? After a virtual 3D model is created, a surfacing artist constructs its appearance with computer programs called shaders. They determine the way light scatters off the surface so it looks shiny, transparent, and smooth (like glass) or dull and rough (like rust).

SETS & CAMERAS: Virtual cameras view virtual 3D worlds
Movies need more than just characters. The setting of each scene and the way each image is framed convey the context, story, and emotion. Set designers are architects. They build virtual environments from the ground up. Every pebble, tree, and building helps turn the storyboards into a believable world. Camera artists use virtual cameras to shape what is shown on screen. They choose the composition, camera movement, and lens type to support the story.

ANIMATION: Animation is acting
Pixar animators bring a story to life, posing characters to act out each scene. Animators start by creating key frames that mark out important positions in a movement. They then use a computer program to describe how the object moves between the key frames so the resulting animation conveys the desired emotions.

SIMULATION: Computer programs create automated motion
While animators focus on acting, simulation programmers create motion that makes scenes feel alive and believable. Some simulations––hair, fur, and clothing––respond to the way a character moves. Other simulations re-create natural phenomena, such as fire or water. Programmers start with the underlying physics, but they balance believability with the artistic needs and the time it takes to run the simulation.

LIGHTING: Virtual lights enhance mood and believability
Lighting is an essential part of telling a story. Light shows you where to look and enhances the emotional feel of each scene. Pixar’s lighting designers have the additional task of defining virtual lights in the computer. The color, position, and intensity of each light needs to be programmed to achieve the desired artistic effect.

RENDERING: Rendering turns a virtual 3D scene into a 2D image
The virtual scene is set—the characters are shaded and posed, the lights and camera are in position, and the simulations are ready to run. But no one knows what it looks like until the rendering process turns all that data and programming into an image we can see. Pixar generates low-resolution renders for work in progress and high-resolution renders for the final film.

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Fun Facts

The Science Behind Pixar exhibition is organized into sections focused on steps in Pixar’s technical process and showing how an idea results in a finished product: Modeling, Rigging, Surfaces, Sets and Cameras, Animation, Simulation, Lighting, and Rendering.

MODELING (creating virtual 3D models based on art designs)

  • In Cars, the opening race featured 60,000 cars seated in the stands and an additional 700 cars in the infield and aisles. The final race had 100,000 seated cars, and 1,500 cars in the infield and aisles. There are nearly 13,000 cars entering the stadium to find seats for the final race.
  • Ninety percent of all the monsters in Monsters, Inc. have Mike’s tongue.

RIGGING (creating virtual joints and muscles so the models can move)

  • In Finding Nemo, Bruce the great white shark has 202 teeth, and each is individually animated.
  • To save production time during Ratatouille, the artists at Pixar skipped one detail—none of the human characters have toes.

SURFACES (creating the object’s appearance using computer programs called shaders)

  • To develop the desired look for Queen Elinor’s emerald dress in the film Brave, the art department took real matte silk fabric samples and painted metallic colors onto the fabric, adding other subtle embellishments. Shading artists replicated the look in the computer.
  • Lightning McQueen has 14 different paint variants in Cars, ranging from subtly different amounts of dirt and dust to the completely new paint jobs near the end of the film.
  • The nearly 35,000 texture maps in Toy Story 2 occupy about 40 GB of disk space. There are more than 10,000 texture maps for the humans alone.
  • It took more than a month to digitally paint Al’s car for Toy Story 2.

SETS AND CAMERAS (building the film’s virtual world)

  • All of the bedroom doors in the Door Vault in Monsters, Inc. were created from combinations of 26 paint colors, 12 styles, 8 wood colors, 10 decals, 6 door knobs, and 3 hardware types.
  • For Ratatouille, Pixar filmmakers created about 270 pieces of food in the computer. Every food item was prepared and styled in a real kitchen, then photographed for reference and eaten.
  • There are roughly 1,000 unique props in the interior of the truck in WALL•E. It took a team of five modelers and five shading artists more than a month to create them all.
  • Brave was the first Pixar film with a castle, so the production team visited, researched, and studied a number of castles for reference. DunBroch castle was designed from the ground up, inside and out. Everything from the architecture of the structure itself to the tapestries in the hall and the moss on the stone walls was designed and built as computerized 3D models.

ANIMATION (bringing the story to life and posing characters for scenes)

  • During the production of Up, each animator produced an average of 4 seconds of animation per week.
  • The most animation produced in one week of production on Toy Story 2 was 5 minutes and 42 seconds.
  • A technical director hand-animated the hairs on Sulley’s fingers to make them react to Boo’s touch near the end of Monsters, Inc.

SIMULATION (creating hair, clothing, and other effects)

  • In Monsters, Inc., Sulley has 25,336 “key” hairs that guide the motion and shape of the other 2.3 million hairs.
  • Merida, in Brave, has more than 1,500 individually sculpted curly red strands that generate about 111,700 total hairs.

LIGHTING (lighting each scene and enhancing the emotional impact)

  • There are 21,566 lights in four different shots when Lightning McQueen and Mack first get on the road to California in Cars.

RENDERING (turning all of the data and programming into the final 2D images)

  • Monsters University took 100 million CPU hours to render, which is equivalent to 10,000 years for a single computer.
  • It took almost two weeks to render the most complicated shot on The Incredibles
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