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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pixar & Khan Acad­e­my Offer a Free Online Course on Sto­ry­telling

Take a Free Online Course on Mak­ing Ani­ma­tions from Pixar & Khan Acad­e­my

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Sto­ry­telling … Makes for an Addic­tive Par­lor Game

Free Online Physics Cours­es

A Rare Look Inside Pixar Stu­dios

The Beau­ty of Pixar

The First 3D Dig­i­tal Film Cre­at­ed by Ed Cat­mull, Co-Founder of Pixar (1970)

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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