A Free Short Course on How Pixar Uses Physics to Make Its Effects

A new computer-animated spectacle that makes us rethink the relationship between imagination and technology seems, now, to come out every few months. Audiences have grown used to various computer animation studios all competing to wow them, but not so long ago the very notion of entertaining animation made with computers sounded like science fiction. All that changed in the mid-1980s when a young animator named John Lasseter breathed life into the CGI stars of such now simple-looking but then revolutionary shorts as The Adventures of André and Wally B. and Luxo Jr., the latter being the first independent production by a certain Pixar Animation Studios.

We know Pixar today as the outfit responsible for Toy Story, The IncrediblesWALL-E, and other groundbreaking computer-animated features, each one more impressive than the last. How do they do it? Why, with ever-larger and more highly skilled creative and technological teams, of course, all of whom work atop a basic foundation laid by Lasseter and his predecessors in the art of computer animation, in the search for answers to one question: how can we get these digital machines to convincingly simulate our world?




After all, even imaginary characters must emote, move around, and bump into one another with conviction, and do it in a medium of light, wind, water, and much else at that, all ultimately undergirded by the laws of physics.

Thanks to Pixar and their competition, not a few members of the past couple generations have grown up dreaming of mastering computer animation themselves. Now, in partnership with online educational organization Khan Academy, they have a place to start: Pixar in a Box, a series of short interactive courses on how to "animate bouncing balls, build a swarm of robots, and make virtual fireworks explode," which vividly demonstrates that "the subjects you learn in school — math, science, computer science, and humanities — are used every day to create amazing movies." The effects course gets deeper into the nitty-gritty of just how computer animators have found ways of taking real physical phenomena and "breaking them down into millions of tiny particles and controlling them using computer programming."

It all comes down to developing and using particle systems, programs designed to replicate the motion of the real particles that make up the physical world. "Using particles is a simplification of real physics," says Pixar Effects Technical Director Matt Wong, "but it's an effective tool for artists. The more particles you use, the closer you get to real physics. Most of our simulations require millions and millions of particles to create believable water," for instance, which requires a level of computing power scarcely imaginable in 1982, when Pixar's own effects artist Bill Reeves (who appears in the one of these videos) first used a particle system for a visual effect in Star Trek II. These effects have indeed come a long way, but as anyone who takes this course will suspect, computer animation has only begun to show us the worlds it can realize.

For more Pixar/Khan Academy courses, please see the items in the Relateds below.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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