Client: Museum of Science, Boston and Pixar Animation Studios
Project: The Science Behind Pixar
Challenge: Iterating the physical design and material selections to create a visual simplicity and bringing the exhibit to completion in 1 ½ years.
Role: Exhibit Designer

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The Science Behind Pixar is a 10,000 sq. ft traveling exhibit that gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how STEM, computer science, and computational thinking are used to create Pixar’s animated films.

The exhibit uses Pixar’s own Technical Pipeline to organize the experience into 8 clusters: Modeling, Rigging, Surfaces, Sets & Cameras, Animation, Simulation, Lighting, and Rendering, plus an Introductory Theater and an area called Pipeline that succinctly illustrates the technical process.

Within each cluster, there is a 3-part introductory area including an Immersive experience and two video components. The Immersive is a quick-hit, large scale component with a photo-op, like a human scale Buzz Lightyear. In each cluster, one video focuses on a technical challenge from the cluster and representative film, and the other is more artsy, with fun facts. Also within each cluster are computer interactive components that address the visitor with a challenge that a Pixar employee would encounter, as well as an interview video of a worker in the department. To round out each cluster, physical manipulative interactive components help the visitor explore concepts within the content area.

A week prior to the opening of the Hall of Human Life, I was brought onto the Pixar development team under Mike, the lead designer. At that point, two years of prototyping and early design conceptualization had already occurred, including the exhibit organization, exhibition components, general look and feel, and preliminary materials selections. My job was to take Mike’s early conceptions and help flesh out individual components and a visual language for the exhibit, and from there, create a design drawing set for fabrication.

The original look and feel was taken from the Pixar campus architecture: exposed black oxide A-frame I-beams with glass and clear-coated wood. The benefit to this palette is that all of the beautiful Pixar artwork could coexist in one space without fighting. The other connecting idea was that the interactive components could look like the technical artists’ workstations at Pixar.

Mike’s original workstation drawings had floor-to-standing height partitions that were covered with Pixar artwork, with an interactive desk in the middle. The partitions were a great idea, especially because we anticipated needing multiple kiosks for each workstation so visitors would not have a long wait time. However, I feared that they would end up feeling like a mouse-maze.

In our first proposal to Pixar, we tried to eliminate the maze feel by lifting the unit off of the ground 27”, separating the header from the partition to give some sight-lines, and making the partition jog at a 45 degree. We also added a milk plexi portion with a diagonal beam to add interest. Although Pixar generally liked the direction, their reaction was to simplify. The jog became a regular corner and the diagonal beam was eliminated from our visual vocabulary.

As we continued to iterate within our design team as well as with our colleagues at Pixar, our design intention became more about creating furniture that would frame (not obstruct or cut) the beautiful large-scale Pixar artwork we were showcasing, while still adhering to our accessibility practices and technical needs. Our color and material palettes for the structures within the exhibit became more neutral, including the Immersive set pieces, which were originally supposed to take on more of a movie-set feeling. This constant simplicity and cleanliness of forms, materials, and finishes enables the exhibit furniture to take a back seat to the vibrant images that populate the content and create the atmosphere of the exhibit.

Simplicity was key for the structure of the exhibit on many levels. Early on, we created a lineup of modular components that were repeated throughout the clusters. The Immersive base structure, video kiosks, and computer workstations in each cluster are all copies of the same designs. Out of the forty interactive components within the exhibit, only ten are one-offs. The implication of designing in this way was that we spent the least amount of time working on design and fabrication drawings as possible, but the exhibit retains a visual and experiential texture. Our hope is that it will travel well to other museums and configure decently into many different exhibit spaces over the next 5-10 year run.