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We asked Andrew Gordon, directing animator at Pixar, what advice he had for aspiring animators. Pixar senior scientist Tony DeRose was faced with a problem that animators had never solved — how to make the hand of an old man look lifelike.
Pixar is constantly solving new technical challenges that allow its artists, designers and storytellers a broader range of movement and texture in the movies they make. Khan Academy is best known for its modular videos explaining various curriculum topics that students can use to better understand and practice a concept. When Pixar started looking around for a distribution partner, Khan Academy content producer Brit Cruise got excited that this partnership, now known as Pixar In A Box, might keep people interested in the content longer. The Pixar In A Box lessons start with a technical problem that animators face and work into the math from there.
For example, in the character modeling lesson, based on the surface representation work DeRose pioneered, students learn about weighted averages.
The lesson then turns to an explanation of why weighted averages help create the smoothing effect needed to make skin look more real. The Pixar In A Box videos also do a good job of taking viewers inside the world of Pixar, into the offices and studios of real employees. The Pixar in a Box videos show glimpses of what it might be like to work at Pixar, including an office designed to feel like a jungle. While some teachers are already getting excited about the Pixar in a Box lessons, it’s worth noting they were designed for the individual user, who isn’t necessarily a student in a public school. Pixar's Andrew Gordon explains how to get your foot in the door and how Pixar's internship programme works in practice. Sign up for a class; do something where you are basically doing work, getting feedback on it and so growing and getting better. Whether it be designing characters, a storyboard or being an animator, there really is something that that department is looking for. Now the company is teaming up with Khan Academy to use examples like DeRose’s discovery of surface representation to show students how the math and science they’re learning in school is applied by Pixar animators. But, like many other groups working on reaching large numbers of people through online video lessons, its content producers have discovered that lots of people stop watching partway through.

In each video a real Pixar animator lays out the technical problem, and then students get to experiment with interactive elements to better understand the problem. Right now only two of the 12 modules have an interactive lesson, but Cruise is working with a group of teachers to develop others that can be done simply, in 40 minutes, with cheap materials.
While the video lessons are currently about only math topics, Pixar In a Box producers are working on science lessons now (mainly computer science) and hope to make others for the humanities side of Pixar’s work as well. In school, math and science often seem completely divorced from the humanities, but at Pixar the storytellers, artists and sculptors must work hand in hand with computer scientists like DeRose, tasked with figuring out how to animate those ideas. Students liked meeting real Pixar employees and getting a sense of who they are and where they work. Cruise was clear that in order to make the videos feel authentic, they wanted to start from real technical problems Pixar has solved and explain the math behind them. Cruise said he hopes teachers might consider assigning the video lesson at home so class time could be used for the hands-on activities and a deeper dive. I’m saying that the problem in the TED talk did not require knowing the midpoint formula. I am a teacher at an idependent school and am constantly working on integrating STEAM innovative learning. I work in an independent school and we are always searching for new innovative ways to integrate STEAM into the curriculum and engage our students with authentic learning experiences.
She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. Gradually the video works towards a more explicit explanation of the math involved, and by the end the student is calculating to solve the actual problems faced at Pixar.
This feedback prompted the content producers to add a “Getting to Know” section at the end of the videos, where viewers learn about the backgrounds of Pixar professionals and how they landed their jobs.
My point is that the TED video explains how to calculate a midpoint then immediately removes the need for that understanding by using the animation software. Knowing how to bake bread or build a battery is not inherently interesting for most people, and aren’t skills that will ever come up again in their lives. I need it to look like more naturally curved) and then working through the problems like a professional would.

These gave Tony a chance to break free of TED talk limitations (such as interactivity and working towards a goal).
It required a high level understanding of what a midpoint is (that it’s the middle point of a line), but beyond that, the animation software actually did the work.
We don’t teach kids how the graphite in pencils works before they can learn to write or how books are bound before they can learn to read.
Our school would love to be a pilot school for Pixar in a Box, especially the younger grade levels.
I think that doing films or pieces of work that show storytelling ultimately helps in the very end or during your career because the medium is all about telling stories, it's not just about one or two shots. The same animation could’ve been created with just an explanation of midpoints without teaching the formula. The added value of the confidence is not enough for most students, so we shouldn’t ask them to spend time on that.
Sure it would be helpful to know the formulas and proofs, but we’d be in school for much more than 12 or even 16 years (including college) if we needed to prove every single formula we learn in school.
We, as teachers, always talk about math as something that builds confidence and abstract reasoning but math is actually useful in doing practical work. We should embrace the technology for what it does and focus on the mathematical skills (some of which is computation and more of which is question asking and analysis) that students actually need in the 21st century.
Maybe if a student were building a treehouse and needed to calculate midpoints of beams, then actually knowing the midpoint formula would be helpful. But even then, there’s certainly some 3D computer modeling software that will determine those measurements for you. We need to distinguish what students need to know at a high level and where knowing the formula is practically useful.

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