Only nostalgia zealots can argue we are not in a Golden Age for animated movies. 2010 gave us classics like "Megamind", "Toy Story 3" and the one movie to rule them all, "Tangled." These awesome animated family movies are just a few of the reasons why we are in the Golden Age of cartoons, and we do not even have to include "The Incredibles", "Finding Nemo", or "Up". The characters and story had heart and compelling plots.

They also had physics.

Suspension of disbelief is one thing but impossible physics (like that bus in "Speed" making a low speed jump over a gap and somehow landing on the other side of a parallel road) tend to jar people out of the movie experience.   It's fine for a "Road Runner" cartoon but not films that want to be more than slapstick humor.   

There was once a concern that digital animation in films would be a crutch to mask weak storytelling the way graphics became a cosmetic veneer for video games - just the opposite.    Animators in movies go out of their way to learn physics and anatomy, because they know you have to know the rules in order to break them.

Take Toothless, the young flying dragon in "How to Train Your Dragon"(1),  a character that flies through explosive flames, spins out of control and falls from the sky. "Our job is to convince the audience that, not only could that animal fly, but if he hits the ground, it will kill him," says Cassidy Curtis, a character animator for DreamWorks.  "The biggest win is when the audience feels an emotional connection to the character.   Physics is integral to everything we do as animators because when something doesn't feel like it's physically capable of happening, it pops the audience out of the moment. It reminds the audience what they're watching isn't real."

Physicist Alejandro Garcia, a professor at San Jose State University, advises DreamWorks animators, including Curtis, to create believable characters. With physics in mind, he and other scientists help animators make dragons fly right and explosions look real. "Anatomy is a topic that doctors study, and so do artists," Garcia says. "With animation, physics has become another science essential to the craft of these artists."

Garcia also helps animators create realistic yet whacky worlds of their own. "It's very important for animators to understand motion because that's really what they're doing, they're creating motion," says Garcia.

Animators create worlds that aren't always a plausible fit in the natural world. Damon Riesberg, a DreamWorks animator and the head of character effects for "Megamind," understands how to mix imagination with reality. "Each movie, each film animation that we do has its own world of physics,.  They're slightly off from what our normal physics would be. 'Megamind''s world wasn't necessarily our world."

But other parts of "Megamind" are much more realistic. To create the perfect cape design, animators took various capes out for a test spin. "Our team built real capes of different fabrics, different materials, lengths and thicknesses to see what the real world physics would be," says Riesberg.

Animators analyze the real world physics of cape behavior while running, spinning and jumping around. The tests give the animators understanding of how to create a reasonable yet individualistic cape. 

Garcia's physics lessons have also taught Jason Spencer-Galsworthy, supervising animator for "Megamind," a few things as well. "He explains how physics actually works," Spencer-Galsworthy says. Garcia gives lessons about gravity to help animators figure out the speed of falling objects or how characters should shift their weight from side to side when they're running, walking or standing still.

In the classroom, Garcia analyzes a student's animation and points out subtle changes that would make the animation appear more realistic. Garcia's student, Paul Yula, says, "There's a believability that comes into play in animation. You can stretch the rules, but you can never break the rules."

Learning these rules could give future animators a leg up on the competition when they start the job search in the movie, TV and gaming industries.  With physics as groundwork, prospective animators could make any imaginary world seem as authentic as our own.


(1) A decent movie but unlike the other three, it appeals more to women so didn't merit the top honors of the ones in the first paragraph.  To most men, the movie ends well, whereas women liked the first two thirds of the film and the idea of finding some untamed beast in the wilderness and teaching him to communicate properly.