Pixar Research Group lead Tony DeRose presents at Berkeley Forum

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Jessica Liu/Courtesy

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Computer scientists and animated film enthusiasts alike gathered at Anna Head Alumnae Hall on Monday for a behind-the-scenes look at how animators use the tools of science and math to create detailed renderings of their favorite Pixar characters.

The Berkeley Forum hosted a presentation by Tony DeRose, a senior scientist and lead of Pixar Research Group who has had a hand in many of the Pixar films of the past two decades.

Through a series of animated demonstrations, DeRose illustrated the role of geometry, trigonometry and physics in bringing characters to life. In one such example, DeRose showed how scientists used a spring-mass system, a physics concept, to model the hair of Merida from “Brave.”

“At Pixar, we love to tell stories, but one story that hasn’t been told very much is the degree to which math and science are used in our production,” DeRose said.

As lead of the Pixar Research Group, DeRose directs a team of scientists who put these concepts into action. He has contributed to “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and “Up,” among other Pixar films.

DeRose earned his doctorate from UC Berkeley in computer science. His research is “fundamental” to the mathematical modeling that animators use to render curved surfaces, said professor Brian Barsky, who was DeRose’s former doctoral adviser.

According to Ren Ng, assistant professor in the electrical engineering and computer sciences department at UC Berkeley, DeRose’s work allowed animation to move away from “blocky” representations toward smoother, more realistic-looking images.

“He really found a way to create something beautiful out of simple and efficient representations,” Ng said.

This modeling can be observed in the animation of the old man in the Oscar-winning short film “Geri’s Game,” to which DeRose was a major contributor. At the Monday event, DeRose demonstrated how concepts such as limits — taught in introductory calculus courses — contributed to the rendering of the old man’s hands in the film.

DeRose now works as part of a number of outreach programs that emphasize the artistic applications of math and science for teenagers.

“I’m really disappointed by how much the excitement and beauty of math and science gets stripped away in the classroom,” DeRose said.

In an effort to inspire students, DeRose has contributed to Pixar in a Box, a collaboration between Pixar and Khan Academy that offers online interactive math challenges. These challenges showcase the animation-related application of math concepts typically taught in middle and high school.

“At Pixar, we see the arts and sciences as being inextricably linked,” DeRose said. “And a lot of the qualities that make a good artist also make a good scientist — the ability to see things differently and solve problems.”

At the end of his presentation, DeRose emphasized the fundamental role that math and science play in “everything we do.”

“I think that creativity required in order to solve these mathematical problems is every bit as magical as artistic creation,” DeRose said.

Contact Jessica Lynn at [email protected].