October 29, 2004 4:00 AM PDT
Hollywood whistles a high-tech 'toon
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it needed more rendering muscle. Still, the dominant cost for making a feature-length animated film is for labor, not computing power.
Clearing some of the technical hurdles, animators now must ensure that the design of characters is appealing to viewers. Rendering human beings is so complex--moviegoers watch the effects with an unconscious scrutiny--that many creators opt for stylized or fictional characters such as monsters or animals.
"The computer graphics explosion is ideally yet to come, when we make human characteristics more organic," said Nick Foster, DreamWorks' head of animation software.
As of 1990, visual effects were still done photochemically. Back then, it was an uncertainty whether computers could produce realistic human characters, but PCs were used to create some hard-surface objects such as spaceships in the original "Star Wars" trilogy.
Only 10 years ago, animation was still more like drawing flip books. Master animators would sketch what's called a key frame--for example, a boy with his arm cocked to throw a football. Then the next frame drawn would be of the boy with his arm forward with the ball leaving his hand. Instead of a book of frames that could be "flipped through" to create the illusion of fluidity, software developed to a point at which it can render the sequences and movement in between each frame.
Computers calculate the mathematical algorithms necessary to connect the dots. For a more complex scene, an animator might add another key frame, and the software again would be programmed to give the illusion of movement between frames. Now animators don't need to sketch frames; it's all done with the click of a mouse.
Pixar's 1995 film "Toy Story" was a milestone in the computer animation field because it was the first all-digital feature film. It also underscored the challenges in creating realistic human characters--the toys were believable because viewers had no real reference point, but the adults and child in the film were poor substitutes.
The film struck box-office gold, spurring competitors to join in the race to perfect computer-generated animation technology.
Film director Steven Spielberg, one-time Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and music impresario David Geffen founded DreamWorks SKG in 1994. Since then, the animation unit has made four films using computer-generated animation. Its next computer-animated film will be "Madagascar," slated for release in early 2005.
Even Walt Disney, the company that helped pioneer hand-drawn animation in the 1930s, jumped on the bandwagon, winning a deal to distribute Pixar's films. The relationship has come under stress recently, with Pixar breaking off talks to extend the partnership. Disney's president and chief operating officer, Robert Iger, last month told CNBC that it's "unlikely" Disney will strike a new Pixar deal.
The final film Disney will distribute with Pixar under the deal is "Cars," set for release in 2005.The uncanny valley
Animators and visual effects experts agree that the Holy Grail of computer graphics is bringing realistic human characters to life on the big screen.
"At some point in the future, we will have true human characters--that's something people are striving for--but it will take a few years," Owen said. "We need a lot more understanding of how humans move, how humans act, and more understanding of our perception--to figure out what we do when we take in information. It's important to creating these effects."
Still, computer graphics professionals walk a fine line. Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori has described people's emotional response to humanlike robots as the "uncanny valley," because fondness for the robots often falls off a cliff when they become too real.
The human face has so many subtleties that a slight muscle or eye movement can dramatically change the meaning of an
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