Your students will be amazed to learn that, behind the scenes, a great amount of technical and mathematical know-how goes into creating the animations and special effects they love in video games and movies. Much of that math can be found right in their very own textbooks and lesson assignments.
For example, linear algebra is used to manipulate the position of an object, rotation, shifting, and sizing. This technique allows animators to ensure that characters, landscapes, and other objects are in the correct proportion and scale to one another.
Geometry also plays a significant role here; in fact, that’s where it all begins. Three-dimensional objects are now mapped using parabolas instead of polygons, which allows curving surfaces that are continuous and that match the limited number of points or planes.
Historically, animators had to hand-draw every frame in a very labor-intensive process. Today, animation is (for the most part) created with high-intensity graphics and 3D modeling, which are squarely rooted in geometry. This includes graphics for:
- Video Games
- Mobile Apps
While no one advocates encouraging students to sit around playing video games and watching cartoons, it does make sense to establish a connection between these activities that occupy much of their free time and the math they’re learning in your classroom. In fact, it can be a great conversation starter with your students about a possible future career.
Setting the Stage
Before introducing students to the behind-the-scenes world of animation, start with a finished product. Here are two suggestions that can serve double purposes:
- You might point to a popular film that combines animation with STEM-related themes. For example, The LEGO Movie touts the ingenuity of engineers and reinforces the value of teamwork while showcasing contemporary animation techniques.
- Or, have students download the Math on the Spot app—fun animated tutorials that support their learning of math concepts.
Seeing these relevant finished products can help create enthusiasm for math while highlighting its real-world applications.
In the classroom, you can try engaging your students with a video tutorial like this one that shows an animator at work. Show them how animators and multimedia artists use a wide variety of algebraic and geometric principles to render seemingly lifelike images onto the screen.
Putting the Pieces Together
Once they’ve seen the animator in action, you can point students to problems in their own textbooks that represent the actions of the working artists. The process of creating an image begins by plotting different elements onto a coordinate grid, along with x-y intercepts to form the basis of the image that’s being created. This allows the animator to control movement and eventually add layers of detail to a character, such as hair color, texture, and style.
Here’s an example of an online problem that asks students to plot proportional relationships. Show your students how the x and y axes enable them to recalculate the plane’s measurements with correct proportions.
Easy Access to Real-World Practice
With so many students owning mobile devices today, giving them a hands-on experience and a head start in animation is much easier than it used to be. Easy-to-access smartphone apps allow users to create video effects as well as animated titles and gifs. It’s a great way to generate interest in further exploration.
For those with a more advanced skillset—particularly in high school—Adobe® software offers a few visual effects and motion graphics programs, including After Effects and Character Animator, that can help take their creativity to a whole new level.
There’s nothing like the pride of a creative “a-ha” moment for motivating students to put their math skills to work.
Learn more about math-related career options that may be of interest to your students in our downloadable Numeracy Counts Career eBook. It’s a great classroom resource that can help motivate your students to discover a newfound appreciation for math and number sense.
Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning
Dr. Vytas Laitusis
Education Research Director, Supplemental & Intervention Math