The making of Pixar in a Box


In early 2014 Tony DeRose (Senior Scientist and Lead of the Research Group at Pixar Animation Studios ) and Elyse Klaidman (Director of Pixar University and Archives) approached Khan Academy with an idea. They wanted to answer a question everyone asks in school at some point: “Why do I need to learn this?” Previously, Tony had given talks which try and engage children in mathematics by demonstrating how math lives at the intersection of design and technology at Pixar. It was clear that you could motivate kids to learn math and science by showing them how concepts they encounter in school are used at Pixar to make movie magic…

You couldn’t really ask for a better duo to spearhead such a project. Elyse is not only a passionate educator, she is also a classically trained artist who is intimately familiar with the creative processes at Pixar. Tony’s role was the perfect complement—for over 20 years he’s been inventing the technologies used to enable new filmmaking techniques. Together, Tony and Elyse had already been developing a traveling physical exhibit with the Boston Museum of Science called “The Science Behind Pixar.” This interactive exhibition showcases the science, technology, engineering, and math concepts used by the artists and computer scientists who help bring Pixar’s award-winning films to the big screen.

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As their next step they wanted to build free online content which could reach people around the world and provide the opportunity to go much deeper into individual concepts. What does deeper look like exactly? One great example is a conversational video Tony did with Brady Haran (Numberphile) last year. Here you can see him diving a bit deeper into some specific mathematics at work behind the scenes:

This video demonstrates the rich connective tissue between design problems and mathematical problems. So how do we build something like that but into an interactive lesson framework? What does it look like and how does it feel?

Back at the office…

At this time the Khan Academy content tools team was also building interfaces which enabled the creation of lessons using sequences of videos, exercises and dynamic text elements. Both missions and tutorials led to many great experiments with organized progressions of content on Khan Academy (For example: Art of Asia tutorials or Algebra basics mission). As a content creator at Khan Academy I was thinking about how we could take a group of concepts (often not taught together) and connect them inside a larger motivating context. Now that we had a Trigonometry mission as well as a series of trigonometry tutorials, what’s next? The next challenge that excited me was very simple: how do we pull people into trigonometry (and any other concept we are required to learn in school). To do this we’d need to build layers of content which not only motivates and connects existing concepts but also teaches new and exciting things. One of my early experiments in this area was the Cryptography challenge 101 (developed with a brilliant KA volunteer Nicholas Kolesar) which was a pen and paper narrative-based puzzle designed to gradually pull people into Cryptography and the related concepts (such as binary numbers).  

Mary Trogdon is a elementary teacher from Oak View Elementary who teaches gifted students and used the Cryptography challenge across an entire year. She writes:

“Everyone loves a good mystery, a challenge…

While searching for the right mix of appropriate content and academic diversity for my upper elementary high achievers, I came across the Crypto Challenge on KA. I had used Khan before, but had never noticed this. I needed an activity where answers couldn’t be found on the internet; where group work and analytical discussions were fostered; and a place where students that had never failed, could safely experience failure in an academic setting.  These students needed rigor and the opportunity to learn how to regroup if, at first, they didn’t succeed.  The Crypto Challenge gave us all that and more.  They were hooked from the Discovery and Clue #1.  They avidly watched the Ancient Cryptography videos on the Caesar Cipher and plotted and planned how to solve the first clue.  They poured over the Question and Answer blog for twists and turns they had not thought of. These students were eager to get to work every day and hard to shut down when our time each day on Kahn was finished.  They talked about it at lunch and recess and stopped me in the halls with theories and questions.  It was the hardest, best unit of study that I have done with fourth and fifth graders and they would absolutely agree.”

(if you are a teacher reading this please reach out directly if you’d like the teacher’s guide for this challenge)

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Clearly it was possible to create open-and-go content which could be given to educators and hook students in a substantial way. With Pixar in a Box we wanted to do more of this sort of thing…

Our first date

As you might imagine, the excitement on the day Pixar folks came to Khan Academy was palpable. This was one of those situations where time seemed to slow down and we were able to focus on one thing: bring Pixar to Khan Academy and don’t let them go. Along with Kitt Hirasaki (Designer), a former Pixarian who joined this effort, and James Tynan (Adoption), we nailed our pitch. I’ll spare you the details, suffice it to say the courting didn’t take long…we were a team long before the papers were signed. Luckily Disney stepped in to make this all happen under the guidance of Liz Fogel (Director of Education) and Gregg Sherkin (Strategic Philanthropy) who are focused on turning these kinds of projects into a reality. I set a goal from day one: let’s build lessons that nobody quits on. Nobody walks out of good movies, why would you walk out of a good lesson? Of course that’s impossible to achieve, but how well can we do? We all agreed on one thing, we’d need to iterate…a lot.


Pixar in a Box is born

Pixar was looking for not only a platform but a team to help produce these lessons. We wanted this to be a collaborative project in which both organizations played a role in planning and creation. Plus, we wanted to build something new; we didn’t have many working models to point at and say “it will work like this.” Obviously we’d be hitting forks in the road throughout our production. Do you start lessons with a math concept, or design concept? How do you increase the difficulty between lessons without alienating some people? How to deal with prerequisites? What do the exercises look like? What do you teach and what do you ignore?

To help answer these questions we agreed on some overarching guiding principles to direct us over the production process. The first was key: Tell the most natural story. Instead of looking at individual math concepts and building a lesson around them (such as you see with sample problems), we’d begin with real design problems and find the most authentic connections to the underlying technology. As a result we framed our content around the production pipeline and built pathways into the math for each.

Lesson design

This leads to another guiding principle: begin with design and lead into technology. Within each topic, we begin with a lesson that tells a real story about how technology is used at Pixar to solve design problems. These opening lessons should be appropriate for all ages and make no assumptions about what you know. Let’s jump into a topic to demonstrate how things progress. How about….Character Modeling!

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The popular history of Pixar began with an experimental short film, “Luxo Jr.” (the little lamp in the Pixar logo), which won an Oscar ©. What people might not know is that Pixar has never stopped producing experimental short films. These short films are critical internal experiments which push new technology and new storytellers. As a result they also win many technical achievement awards. In 1998,Tony was a major contributor to the Oscar ©-winning short film “Geri’s Game.” In 2006, he also won a Scientific and Technical Academy Award © for his work on surface representations first used in that film. Now, this sounded like a great story for a lesson…what specifically did they do on that film that was so special?

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Each of our lessons is hosted by someone at Pixar. In this case a charismatic character modeler named Alonso Martinez is our host for the Character Modeling lesson (Fun fact: He recently recorded a short video about some amazing robots he builds in his spare time). Alonso begins by reminding us that all characters begin as clay models. In this case he shows us an actual model of Geri’s hand:

When this clay model is represented in computer it looks something like this:

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But that doesn’t quite look natural. The next step is key: a smoothing operation is applied which turns the hand into this:

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To smooth the hand  the underlying wireframe needs thousands of new points which divide the mesh into many tiny flat surfaces. In aggregate these tiny flat surfaces end up looking nice and smooth. The problem is this could be a ton of work if done manually, so an algorithm was needed which could do the smoothing automatically. This brings us to the subdivision algorithm which is a very efficient (fast) way to smooth things with the click of a button. Subdivision is the focus of the first lesson in the Character Modeling topic.

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[The lesson begins by introducing the two steps involved in the algorithm: spit and average]

We now arrive at another guiding principle: lessons should be interactive and highly participatory. In every lesson we present the user with simplified versions of the tools used at Pixar. It was important to us to blend the structured content with open ended content creation steps. In this case we start by giving the user a 2D modeling tool which allows them to create a basic shape and then apply the subdivision algorithm to make it nice and smooth. This gives the user a feel for what we’ll do mathematically a bit later.

We ended up needing over 60 of these kinds of interactive tools across our lessons and luckily Peter Collingridge (a prolific KA programmer and long time collaborator) joined us on this project. His job was to develop these interactive elements, which were used across the exercises and videos. They define the visual language of our lessons. These interactive steps are followed by exercises which assess whether you understand the details involved in the algorithm. In this example we count how many points are added to the shape each time we apply the subdivision algorithm.

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[jump to this exercise]

By the end of the first lesson you’ll have experience with the subdivision algorithm, using both 2D and 3D shapes. Now that you know what’s going on behind the scenes you are primed for the underlying mathematics.

What happens after a single subdivision step

Pull away the curtain

The second lesson does just that, pulls away the curtain and exposes the mathematics running behind the design tools. In this case we need to first clarify how multiple points can be averaged in 2D space, so the interactive exercises focused on weighted averages.

Once the user is comfortable with weighted averages they discover how weights are used in the subdivision algorithm to move points around. It turns out that some weights result in an algorithm which generates nice smooth curves like this:Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 1.30.07 PM

While other weights, such as negative numbers, result in fractals:

By the end of this topic you’ll walk away with an understanding of why we use subdivision surfaces and how they work….plus you’ll have leveraged common concepts taught in school, such as midpoints, plotting points, ratios and simple algebra.

So, there you have the general flow behind each topic. They all tell real stories about how design problems are solved at Pixar using science & mathematics. We tried some experiments along the way, dropping in hands-on activities, bonus challenges and “getting to know” videos which allow you hear personal growth stories from our hosts at the end of each lesson. A great example is our interview with Fran Kalal, definitely worth a watch:

What’s next?

On August 26th 2015 we launched this project at Pixar Animation Studios. It was a fantastic event full of lively discussion & demos


Demo with Tony


Myself, Elyse, Tony, Sal, Ed and James

In keeping with the R&D spirit of this project, we are going to continue to push into more uncharted territory next. Right now we are working on science topics and which integrate computer programming (using John Resig’s amazing CS platform). After that we want to delve further into the humanities to get students working on storytelling, editing and more!

Back to the drawing board…

Check out Pixar in a Box at

If you have questions for the team you can reach us at:

To stay up-to-date on our content releases follow us @pixarinabox on twitter.

Or check out some teacher field tests of Pixar in a Box.

I also did a podcast on this project which you can listen to here.

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