There is something amiss with Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. The right eyelid of the “Toy Story” character is being dragged up and down — while her left eye is shooting out to the left.
This bizarre facial contortion is courtesy of one gleeful 5-year-old, aka my daughter, pressing a panel of buttons that control the eyes of a large close-up animated image of Jessie’s face right in front of us.
These are just a few among many interesting buttons to press at “The Science Behind Pixar,” an innovative exhibition that explores the extraordinary raft of mechanics behind some of the world’s best-known animation films.
The show first opened in 2015 at the Museum of Science, Boston, with more than 1.5 million people since visiting it across eight venues in the U.S. and Canada. Now it’s in Tokyo, for its Asia debut.
More precisely, the setting is Roppongi Hills Observation Deck Tokyo City View, with the exhibition spanning the 360-degree observation gallery on the 52nd floor of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, the stunning skyscraper views providing a seductive urban backdrop.
The show is clearly the real deal: Developed by the Museum of Science, Boston in collaboration with Pixar Animation Studios, it has eight different categories — Modeling, Simulation and Rendering among them — offering accessible technical insight into the science behind contemporary animation.
Not only are there countless familiar faces — from a perky Buzz Lightyear and a forgetful Dory the fish to a vibrant green Mike and hairy blue Sully (“Monsters, Inc.”) — most of the exhibition is interactive, enabling children to try out for themselves the technology that brings the Pixar films to life.
Describing the rarity of such an exhibition, Miki Kazama, from the planning group of Tokyo City View, tells me, “For children and adults alike who visit ‘The Science Behind Pixar,’ we want them to walk away with a sense of awe over how much hard work, dedication and ingenuity is required when making Pixar films.”
Upon arrival, my 5-year-old daughter immediately makes a beeline for a ring of video screens, each showing various elements of animation making, with the audio heard via a telephone handset. She picks up each of the phones, one by one, before launching into an animated pretend conversation with her granny in London — perhaps not the curators’ intention, but still, it keeps her happy.
Next stop? The Modeling section. She stares in fascination at a display of various characters in clay form that makers scan into computers to create virtual 3D models, before sitting down to build a mini robot out an array of strong gray magnets of various shapes (it’s a bit like Lego for grown-ups).
We then join a short queue at a workstation where we create graphic 3D shapes on a monochrome screen using various buttons, before sliding yellow handles on another cabinet-shaped stand to rotate 2D images on an axis to cleverly transform them into a 3D ones (from parking cones to children’s stacking rings).
But it’s Jessie’s green eyes that really capture my daughter’s attention. In the Rigging section she sits down in front of a large screen of her face and presses all the buttons, before slowly working out which one relates to which element of the eyes (from upper eyelids to pupils). The end result? Dozens of different facial expressions (hence the comical eyebrow bouncing and eyeballs-shooting-in-the-wrong-direction combo).
The Sets & Cameras section is also a favorite. Here, a scene of Ant Island from “A Bug’s Life” has been recreated in an expansive set of grass of trees. Visitors can sit at a computer and move hidden cameras to see different perspectives from inside the green wonderland.
The rest of our visit passes quickly, as my daughter transforms the surface of a car bonnet into rusted metal; plays around with reflective, bumpy and transparent surfaces of objects in a scene from the film “Ratatouille”; and experiments with the color and flow of water in an atmospheric sea scene from “Finding Dory” in the Lighting section.
While my daughter inevitably enjoyed the visual, hands-on effects, the show is insightful and educational for older kids and adults alike. It casts a spotlight on the clever computer technology that brings these films to life — from the algorithms behind smooth surfaces right down to the spring-inspired simulation used to create the bouncy red hair curls of Princess Merida from “Brave.”
And the icing on the cake? Scattered among the animation fun are glimpses of epic urban views through Tokyo City View’s walls of windows — a perfect, and very real, complement to the virtual world that fills the exhibition.
“The Science Behind Pixar” runs until Sept. 16 at Roppongi Hills Observation Deck Tokyo City View. Entry is ¥1,800 for adults, ¥1,200 for high school and university students, ¥600 for children younger, and free up to age 4. A number of activities and displays have information written in Japanese alone, although many are easy to work out due to their visual elements. For more information, visit bit.ly/sciencepixar
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