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Exhibit tells science side of Pixar’s story

Mike of “Monsters, Inc.” in “The Science Behind Pixar.”
Mike of “Monsters, Inc.” in “The Science Behind Pixar.”(dINA rUDICK/gLOBE STAFF)

CAMBRIDGE — Over at Modeling, a fully assembled, 6-foot Buzz Lightyear is doing just that, freed from his wooden packing crate and striking a gallant pose. But things are less finished elsewhere.

Signage is still covered in bubble wrap. Architectural drawings lay on a tabletop. One console’s guts are exposed, its wires and buttons spilling out like a robot’s innards. In the Rigging area, a one-eyed green creature with books tucked under his arm and wearing a baseball cap — yes, that’s Mike from “Monsters, Inc.” and “Monsters University” — stands in front of a chalkboard, dwarfed by a plush blue Sully, still without his head or arms.

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Both monsters seem like students, or teachers, at Pixar University — and the fantasy isn’t far off the mark. “The Science Behind Pixar,” a first-of-its-kind, interactive and educational exhibit, opens at the Museum of Science June 28. The show is less behind-the-scenes magic about how the films are made, and more about the science, technology, engineering, and math (a.k.a. STEM) that go into their design. The exhibit is a joint effort between the museum and Pixar Animation Studios, the Northern California-based film company behind 15 computer-animated features, from the “Toy Story” trilogy and “The Incredibles” to “Ratatouille” and “WALL-E.”

“We’ve been working together thinking about what this could be and how it could be realized,” said Elyse Klaidman, director of Pixar University and Archives. Klaidman, who helped design the exhibit and was onsite to review the installation progress, cited the still-touring “Pixar: 25 Years of Animation” exhibit. While that show focuses on Pixar’s artistry, “The Science Behind Pixar” skips art, screenplay, and editorial. This is Pixar’s first science exhibit. “We’ve been wanting to do the other side of our story for a long time,” she said.

That story was still coming together some three weeks before the world premiere, when the Globe was granted a behind-the-scenes tour.

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“There’s a big push,” said Chelsea Murphy, exhibit project manager, amid the din of hammers, electric drills, and the hydraulic hum of a vertical scissor lift in the museum’s Nichols Gallery. “A lot of hours are being put in now to get everything finalized.”

And while the exhibit does showcase a shark-size Dori from “Finding Nemo,” and one can imagine kids racing to see the giant artificial tree modeled after a “A Bug’s Life” (and popping into the tunnel underneath), or just gawking at clips from “Cars” or “Brave,” this is no Disney theme park. There’s learning to be done.

“What [Pixar does] so well,” said Christine Reich, the museum’s director of exhibit development and conservation, is “technological problem solving.” Noting that sometimes artistic desire drives the technology and sometimes the tech creates new artistic opportunity, she added, “That’s such a great story to tell.”

The Museum of Science hosts Pixar’s first science exhibit.
The Museum of Science hosts Pixar’s first science exhibit.(dINA rUDICK/gLOBE STAFF)

First, visitors watch a short movie, produced by Pixar, that “introduces us to some of the people [at Pixar] and the big ideas about what the pipeline process [of filmmaking] involves,” said Alana Parkes, exhibit content developer. Then guests are unleashed into the “non-linear,” 10,000-square-foot exhibition divided into eight areas, each headed by an “immersive set piece” from an iconic movie. “Toy Story” is used to demonstrate Modeling; Rigging is “Monsters University”-themed; “Cars” shows off Surfaces; Sets & Cameras uses “A Bug’s Life” to tell that story; “The Incredibles” demos Animation; “Brave” illustrates Simulation; Lighting is all about “Finding Nemo”; and Rendering features the brand new “Inside Out.” Screen-based activities and hands-on exhibits ask museumgoers to play roles, such as lighting designer, animator, or modeler. Displays aim to teach computer science fundamentals like “Computing Practice and Programming” and “Computational Thinking Skills,” and mathematics lessons in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus. The motion of fluids and optics from “Brave” becomes a lesson in physics; the anatomy and range of motion of animals — or aliens — teaches biology.

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You wouldn’t expect the field of animation to be such a conduit for teaching math or science. Watching a scene from “Up,” viewers don’t necessarily think “that must have been a really complicated scientific computation,” said Maren Jones, Pixar’s exhibitions program manager, also visiting Boston. But that’s the aim of the exhibit.

“Pixar is our first exhibit with a primary focus on computational thinking,” said museum president Ioannis Miaoulis. That said, he added, “Most people don’t want to go to school on Sunday. But they want to be entertained and learn at the same time.” TV shows and the Internet now compete with museums to give folks their “science fix” on the weekends. For Miaoulis, “The Science Behind Pixar” will bring people in the door by hitting three criteria: “It can’t be seen anywhere else,” it invites social interaction among families, and it’s got a “wow” factor.

The decision to partner with Pixar was in large part due to the blockbuster success of “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination,” the museum’s engineering and technology exhibit that piggybacked on the popularity of the “Star Wars” empire. Debuting at the museum in 2005, it finished its 20-venue international tour in 2014 and lured more than 3 million paying customers worldwide.

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Tom Porter, Pixar’s senior vice president of production, said via telephone from the company’s offices in Emeryville, Calif., that museum staff have been “instrumental in helping craft how to explain” what Pixar does to a layperson. Another area of museum expertise: “bullet proofing” the exhibit “so that 5-year-olds hanging off and grabbing the controls won’t destroy everything.” There are plenty of knobs to adjust, objects to touch, and screens to watch.

Years ago, Porter worked on creating realistic wood or cloth patterns and textures and how light propagates off their surfaces for “Toy Story.” “I was using pretty simple high school math, manipulating functions, dealing with geometry. This is not rocket science,” he said. His advice to kids: “Learn what they’re teaching you in math and science, and you’re well positioned for whatever crazy jobs come up 20 to 30 years down the way.”

A “Surface Appearance Workstation” uses a scene from “Ratatouille” to explain how texture, transparency, and translucency affect a sphere. Visitors can edit a computer program to design a school of fish from “Nemo,” or model the motion of a fluid from the film “Brave.” That one-eyed monster returns at a computer workstation where visitors can “Animate Mike’s wave using curves” by playing with posing transitions and the number of frames of the animation.

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Perhaps the exhibit’s biggest goal is to get “a new generation of future scientists and mathematicians excited about what we do, because it’s what got us here,” said Eben Ostby, Pixar’s director of technical artists, also via telephone from Pixar’s headquarters. Ostby has ties to Boston and Providence, and hopes the show will also explain what he does for work. “I can say, ‘Hey Mom, go to this exhibit and you’ll finally get it.’ ” In fact, multiple “Working at Pixar” videos found throughout the exhibit space feature interviews with Pixar employees describing their on-the-job work.

Which raises the question : Is this all a giant advertisement for Pixar?

“This is not an attempt to put up ‘Inside Out’ posters and sell, sell, sell,” said Porter. That said, “The Science Behind Pixar” surely can’t be bad PR. After the show’s Boston run ends in January, the museum plans to tour the exhibit through 2020. Maybe even, as Buzz Lightyear would have it, “To infinity . . . and beyond!”


Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.