Pixar Animator Dr. Theodore Kim Speaks at Stuyvesant

Mr. Wrigley hosted a speaker event with 3D animator Dr. Theodore Kim on November 9.

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Art teacher William Wrigley hosted a speaker event with 3D animator Dr. Theodore Kim on November 9. Dr. Kim is a computer science professor at Yale University who has worked as a 3D animator at Pixar for recent films such as Coco (2017), Incredibles 2 (2018), and Toy Story 4 (2019) and has won two Academy Awards. At the event, he discussed the applications of math in art, as well as his experience as an Asian American in the animation industry.

Wrigley asked Dr. Kim to speak at Stuyvesant due to their close relationship with one another. “I’ve known him since the day he graduated from Cornell as an undergrad,” Wrigley said. “I met him that day because I was there to see my cousin, [whom Dr. Kim married]. Over the summer, we got together at a beach house in Connecticut. While we were sitting around a grill, making burgers or something, I timidly asked if he’d like to speak at Stuyvesant.”

Wrigley wanted to invite Dr. Kim because he felt that his experiences would resonate with the Stuyvesant student body. “He wanted to be able to speak to STEM kids of Asian-American heritage because he felt that was his demographic,” Wrigley said. “He wanted to say some of the things he wished were said to him when he was 16.”

During the talk, Dr. Kim discussed the process to create 3D animations. “He talked about some of the programs that were used by Pixar to create animations,” freshman and attendee Akira Jiang said. “It was through trial and error that [animations were created]. Each time the animation was off by a bit, they had to come up with a completely different mathematical equation.”

Knowing that Stuyvesant is a school with an emphasis on math and science, Dr. Kim went on to show how math applies to CGI (the creation of animated images using computer software). “He talked about mathematical problems that were used to generate certain animations in the movies [he worked on]. Like how rubber stretches, there’s a mathematical equation for that,” Jiang said.

Since the math involved in animation is complex, Dr. Kim avoided using formulas in order to make the presentation more digestible for students. “He was trying to explain, without math, just how [the rendering of 3D models] would work conceptually,” junior and attendee Oscar Zheng said. “But it was a little confusing to understand.”

Despite some confusion, students were fascinated by Dr. Kim’s insights into 3D animation. “It was pretty hard to get because the equations [he did use] were completely out of my understanding,” Jiang said. “But it was pretty cool to see how the mathematical equations translate into animation. It was eye-opening to see.”

Furthermore, Dr. Kim focused on inspiring Stuyvesant’s population of Asian American students. “He actually changed his presentation just for us. Usually, he told us that he talks about fractals at the end of the presentation,” Zheng said. “The extra lesson that he gave us was [...] a biography of Bui Tuong Phong.”

Bui Tuong Phong was a Vietnamese animator who invented 3D rendering software, which has become a universal tool in animation. Two years after he created 3D rendering software, Phong died from leukemia related to potential toxins that he was exposed to during the Vietnam War. However, Phong has been nearly completely forgotten, overshadowed by white men who dominate the field of animation, which Dr. Kim criticized during the event. “[Dr. Kim talked about how, in] textbooks describing the history of 3D modeling, the guy gets one sentence about his program. And then maybe one describing his death, and that’s it,” Zheng said. “And that's a problem because this industry has always been dominated by white males.”

By describing his time at Pixar and telling the story of Phong, Dr. Kim sought to show Stuyvesant students how the animation industry has historically been prejudiced against Asians. “[Dr. Kim] had two Oscar [awards] as his qualification for the job [at Pixar], while no one else [had any],” Zheng said. “So it’s like the underprivileged also have to have better qualifications to get into the workplace.”

For students taking the Animation elective taught by technology teacher Natasha Marcano-Dillon, who were offered extra credit for attending the speaker event, Dr. Kim’s insights provided them with a deeper appreciation of the mediums they work with in class. “It was really interesting to just take a step back from [the 3D modeling we do in class] and see the backstory behind this feature that I’m using every time I log into my computer,” Zheng said. “Everyone takes for granted the shading feature.”

By providing a new perspective on math in art and sharing his experience as an Asian animator in the film industry, Dr. Kim inspired members of Stuyvesant’s student body. In a school renowned for its expertise in STEM, Dr. Kim’s speaker event fostered a much-needed sense of validation for students pursuing art. “I hope students took away that it is possible for them to find creative applications of what they’re studying,” Wrigley said. “This is the most STEM-focused school ever, but I’m up on this 10th floor, and here we’re trying to ensure that students have creative thought as well as their mathematical thought.”