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Animation Expert to Talk Math, Science and Movie Making

Tony DeRose
Tony DeRose

Davidson College invites the public on Tuesday, Sept. 16, to a talk by Tony DeRose, one of the nation's leading scientists in the field of movie animation. DeRose is a senior scientist and lead of the research group at Pixar Animation Studios. For about 25 years he has been in the forefront of the film animation revolution brought on by advances in areas such as computer technology, geometry and applied mathematics. Using numerous examples drawn from Pixar's feature films, DeRose will provide a behind-the-scenes look at the role that math has played in enabling increasingly realistic animation.

DeRose will deliver the college's annual Wearn Lecture beginning at 7:30 p.m. in Duke Family Performance Hall. Tickets are free, but required. They are available through the Union Ticket Office or by phone at 704-894-2135. Please note that there is a $3 handling fee for tickets purchased online.

DeRose and his team of a dozen collaborators work for Pixar on the most complex and risky projects. He explained, "We develop projects to the point where we understand them well enough that we can reasonably, safely put them into production. Or sometimes we decide that this won't be ready anytime soon, so let's put it on the shelf."

In 1998, he was a major contributor to the Oscar-winning short film "Geri's game." In 1999 he received a trade association Computer Graphics Achievement Award, and in 2006 he received a Scientific and Technical Academy Award for his work on surface representations.

He has most recently been exploring human-computer interaction problems, investigating novel input devices to make movie-making tools more fun and flexible. DeRose explained, "The basic question we're asking ourselves is: We've been making movies with traditional workstations for decades, with mouse and keyboard. But that's unlikely to be the ideal movie-making workstation. So, what is it? We have a unique opportunity at Pixar because we write virtually all our own software, and all our users are in-house. If we can identify really innovative and effective workstation designs, we can build the software to use them and deploy them in the company."

Over the years he and his team have developed increasingly sophisticated techniques for creating computer graphic films. He said, "The first hurdle was being able to make a computer graphics movie at all. That was Toy Story. A Bug's Life was challenging because it was the first story we told with lush outdoor environments, so there was a lot of scale and complexity that hadn't been present before. Monsters, Inc. was the first full-length film in which we used simulated clothing. And there was also a lot of hair. The Incredibles also was challenging because there were 80 human characters."

DeRose said, "The thing that drives me the most is the sense of discovery. Whatever it is that I'm doing, I hope it gives me the opportunity to have interesting intellectual insights myself rather than managing a group to help others to do it."

In addition to his research, DeRose is involved in a number of initiatives to help make math, science and engineering education more inspiring and relevant for middle and high school students. In 2010 he co-founded the Young Makers Program, which supports youth in building hands-on computer-based projects. DeRose said, "The most important thing we're helping to develop in these kids is the ability to learn on their own – to take an idea from conception to completion."

In addition to his public presentation, DeRose also will visit a computer science and an art class at Davidson College, and will speak with seventh graders at the Community School of Davidson.