When the first Toy Story film came out in 1995, I was a sophomore in college. Though I didn’t have any kids yet, I remember watching the film and feeling like a kid again—with that child’s sense of wonder and awe at the world that was presented before me on the screen. The animation was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Since then, I’ve seen every Pixar movie made, and so have my boys. The first movie we took Matthew, our oldest, to see was actually Wall-E. He was only three- or four-years-old at the time, so I’m not sure that he understood much of the film. I loved it, though, and Wall-E continues to rank among my all-time favorite animated films.
I’m sure cynics would probably attribute my love for Pixar films to the power of Big Marketing and Disney’s general dominance over everything it touches. And I’m sure some of that is probably true. But I also know that what I appreciate most about Pixar films—what consistently puts them ahead of nearly all the competition—is what I also appreciate about the novels I read with my students. For me, it all comes down to storytelling.
Beautiful animation doesn’t mean much if it isn’t in the service of a powerful story. As in children’s books, the stories and pictures in animated films work hand-in-hand to capture the audience’s imagination. Today we got to see this relationship up close at a special exhibit at the Franklin Institute.
“The Science Behind Pixar” is the museum’s latest special exhibit, which opened this weekend. The exhibit provides an interactive overview of the behind-the-scenes in the making of animated films, from the initial conception of the characters and story to the final rendering of each frame. As the boys and I walked through each stage of the process, I felt that same child-like wonder I had when I saw that first Toy Story film.
We usually think of the arts and sciences as opposites. I hear, over and over again, students describe themselves as either “math and science” or “English and social studies” type students (or sometimes, the more general “artsy”). I’ve heard teachers describe kids the same way, and I’ve heard parents describe their children to me in similar binary terms.
Of course, I don’t really blame students—or teachers or parents or even the general public—for seeing this false division. After all, in our attempts to make sense of the world, we try to break down the complex into simpler parts. Students’ days are broken down into discrete subjects—learning to code in a computer science class from 8:20-9:03, then switching gears to reading and writing poetry from 9:07-9:50, with little to no connection made between the two disciplines.
Yet if you walked around the Pixar exhibit today like I did, you’d easily see that this division is false.
All three of the boys love to draw. And like many of their friends, they also love playing Minecraft, especially in creative mode where they get to build new worlds entirely borne of their own imaginations. Sometimes, for fun, the three of them will make up stories, even writing and illustrating their own original comic books (their favorite story line is the one where the main character accidentally ends up in the girls’ bathroom—they think this is hilarious).
What none of them love, however, is math. It’s not that they’re bad at math; they just don’t spend hours doing math problems for fun the same way they spend hours drawing their favorite superheroes. So when one of the demonstrations at the exhibit today highlighted the way the Pixar workers used math to figure out how to create the steps necessary to animate a particular scene, I heard my 10-year-old gasp a bit: “Wait, you have to use math to do this?”
I couldn’t help myself. As a teacher, I had to turn this into a teachable moment. “That’s right, Matthew. You actually have to know a lot of math to be able to tell the computer what to do to make the characters move.”
He nodded—in surprise, shock, or disappointment, I’m not sure. But as I continued to watch him and his brothers explore the exhibit, I could see their curiosity grow. They looked at both 3D clay models and 3D computer models, and they saw the way initial sketches turned into fully animated characters. Who knows if any of them will ever end up working at a company like Pixar, but at least for today, the possibilities are limitless.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.