You’ve probably seen balloon sculptures consisting of 1 or 2 balloons twisted into the shape of a dog or a hat. But have you ever seen a balloon gorilla that’s as big as the real thing? Ryan Freeman makes incredible balloon sculptures of that scale – and larger! He was nice enough to talk with us about the math behind inflatable art.
I’ve been making sculptures since I was about 10 years old. My mother is a clown, which I know sounds like a joke, but she really is, and she gave me my first balloons. I studied 3-D animation in college, and a professor challenged us to make 3-D art without using any software. So I made a giant Road Runner character from Loony Tunes, and I realized I could keep making these giant creations.
That would be the Santa’s Village we made in a mall for the holidays. It had over 18,000 balloons and took 40 hours for my team of 14 people to make. That sculpture was also unusual because the balloons needed to last from Thanksgiving until the end of December, which meant we had to add a special chemical to the inside of the balloons.
You’re certainly right about that. Normally planning a sculpture takes longer than actually building it. To use the Santa’s Village example, we had to experiment to find out how many milligrams of the chemical were needed to make each size of balloon hold their air for 6 to 8 weeks. There are many different sizes of balloons – they vary by length, diameter, and the maximum volume – and we had to calculate the correct amount of chemical for each size. Then we had to multiply that amount of milligrams by the number of each size of balloon to make sure we ordered the correct amount of the preserving chemical. We had to do similar math to order the right volume of air tanks to fill those 18,000 balloons.
We actually use nitrogen more often than helium, but both come in different sizes of tanks. The extra-large is what we typically use, and it holds 291 cubic feet, which would make a cube of balloons about 6.5 feet in each dimension. We used 22 of those tanks for Santa’s Village.
Oh, yeah! We normally get a bunch of volunteers, hand out forks, and have a popping party. It can get pretty loud, but it’s a lot of fun.
I’d say the other two big pieces are being comfortable with measurements and being creative with geometry. For example, we’re building a giant spider for Halloween with heart-shaped foil balloons. So there’s a great optimal packing problem in measuring those heart-shaped balloons and then figuring out how to make a round spider belly using thousands of balloons. Anyone can dream up a crazy sculpture, but you need math skills to actually build it!
If all this talk of balloons and clowns has put you in the mood for a circus, be sure to check out our latest printable activity guide, Ringmaster-ed Math Games!
Image courtesy of Ryan Freeman