In 1995, Tony DeRose blew off his professorship in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, where he’d built a computer graphics lab, to work for a small computer animation company in the Bay Area. It was called Pixar.
“People thought I was crazy to give up a full professorship to join a little startup,” said DeRose, a senior scientist and head of the Research Group at Pixar Animation Studios, the trailblazing film company that was just about to release “Toy Story” when he came aboard. The movie was the first fully computer-animated feature film ever made, and the first in a string of smash hits created by the celebrated studio now owned by Disney.
“I figured, ‘Well, this will be a fun ride,’ ” said DeRose, 52 and a longtime San Rafael resident. His first Pixar project was developing the mathematical algorithms used to create the skin and body shapes of Geri, the chess-playing codger in the Oscar-winning animated short “Geri’s Game.”
DeRose and a colleague then developed a new system for controlling the movements of computer-animated characters, which he describes as “the digital equivalent of adding strings to a marionette.” The “rigging” system, first used in “Toy Story 2” and for all the characters in “Monsters, Inc.,” has been expanded to allow Pixar artists to create everything from Mr. Incredible’s rippling muscles to the undulating water in “Finding Nemo.”
“I always knew I wanted to do research, but I never thought I’d be making cartoons for a living,” he said with a laugh. He’s on the phone from his lab at Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters, where he’s researching multi-touch computer devices, “experimenting with how we can use things other than mice and keyboards to make movies.”
DeRose, who received a bachelor's degree in physics from University of California, Davis, and plunged into the emerging field of computer graphics while getting his doctorate at Berkeley, is also deeply involved in math and science education. Concerned about the often dry and abstract way these subjects are taught in schools, DeRose has been focusing on what he and Pixar can do “to make math and science more inspiring and more relevant.”
To that end, DeRose gives a presentation to high school teachers and other groups called “Math in the Movies,” using examples from Pixar films to graphically show how the math being taught in classrooms has many applications in film. “When it comes to animated films, there’s a huge amount of math and science behind what we do” he said. For example, all the camera and character movements in Pixar’s movies –think of Woody or Buzz bending their elbows -- are based on trigonometry.
DeRose, who’s looking for funding to create an educational website and curricular materials that teachers could download for free, also co-founded an innovative program called Young Makers.
A collaboration among MAKE Magazine, The Exploratorium and Pixar, the program, now in its second year, aims to inspire and nurture the innovators and makers of tomorrow. Working with adult mentors and fabrication facilities – DeRose and his sons, Sam, 16, and Joseph, 12, work out of their Peacock Gap garage – kids conceive and build projects for display at the big Makers Faire held every May at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds.
Last year, the DeRose boys and another young San Rafael maker, Alex Jacobson, built an 8 ½-foot-tall fire-breathing robotic dragon. Another group made a table that doubles as a hamster habitat; a kid and his dad invented a device that lifts materials up a ladder to workers on the roof. This year, more than 100 kids from around the Bay Area, organized into Young Maker clubs, are participating in the program. They’ve been meeting monthly at the Exploratorium to present their works-in-progress to other design teams (the DeRose boys created a superhero suit that Joseph plans to wear around the Faire).
DeRose was one of 12 educational innovators, chosen from a field of 130, to make a presentation at the first-ever STEMposium (STEM stands for science, technology engineering and math) at the Academy of Sciences earlier this month. His four-minute spiel on Young Makers was a hit. He and four others won the top award and will get about $5,000 worth of prizes.
The Young Makers idea came out DeRose’s family experience. After his son Sam grew out of Legos when he was around 10, “we wanted to do something more ambitious, but there wasn’t much of anything around for him to graduate into,” he said. They started working on projects in the garage, picking a design challenge, working on it for months and showing it at the Maker’s Faire. In 2008, they built a large multi-touch computer display.
“You could think of it as a giant iPad, but in 2008 there obviously weren’t iPad,” said DeRose, whose current research at Pixar is informed by the work he did with his son on that project.
At Pixar, “I get to do what I think of as new mathematics. One of the messages I try to get across when I do the “Math in Movies” talk is that not only do we use all of the old math that you’re taught in school, but the film industry is creating new mathematical challenges." he said. "I get to do interesting mathematics and contribute to something that everyone can enjoy.”