October 29, 2004 4:00 AM PDT
Hollywood whistles a high-tech 'toon
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expression. To study facial expression and capture it is one of the hardest things to do, said DreamWorks supervising animator Tim Cheung.
For this reason, DreamWorks' animators try to achieve "stylized realism" in their films, in which they give the characters the complexity of human appearance and emotion but don't try to replicate it too closely.
Making characters too realistic can turn off the audience. In Shrek, for example, many viewers felt the character of the talking donkey was more "real" than the human princess Fiona.
Like other studios, DreamWorks has developed technology to make the process simpler. Its software contains information on the human physical anatomy and its traits, allowing an animator to program, with one control, movement that reverberates throughout the body.
For example, when the enchantress in Shrek breathes, the movement travels from her shoulders to her belly. The animator would use one command to create that effect so the one action carries the function throughout the structure of the body.
"We're looking to push the envelope on each film, and that requires us to invent new tools," Cheung said. "We write all our own software."Merging visual effects
Hal Hickel, animation director for effects specialist Industrial Light and Magic, said that in the last decade the computer graphics industry has been bent on making things such as smoke, fire and water appear realistic on screen. Now, he said, the industry's in an evolutionary period, improving the believability of facial expressions and the movement of hair and clothing.
The artistic pursuit is to create realistic humans, or one day, digital stunt doubles for actors.
"We're being asked more and more to create digital versions of actors. For that reason, doing realistic humans is becoming an important goal," Hickel said. "But it's a goal we're going to be chasing for a while."
Tim Sarnoff, president of Sony Pictures ImageWorks, a visual effects and animation unit, said the difference between computer graphics imagery and visual effects is decreasing every day. Visual effects are photo-realistic, live-action plates with digital elements imposed in places. Visual effects, such as those used in the battle scenes in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, have merged with computer graphics in the last 10 years, thanks to a greater ability to impose animated characters in those plates, he said. "Suddenly you have a style of animation side by side with the real world, and that's blurring the lines between what was originally considered visual effects and what is now considered digital effects computer graphics imagery."
That melding of worlds is making it more difficult for people to discern what elements in films are computer generated. For example, in the film "Seabiscuit" there were 150 shots that were altered or set with a computer.
"You never want any effect that pulls people away from the movie. The goal is to deliver the technology that makes the film," Sarnoff said.
ImageWorks also worked on the upcoming film "Polar Express," a groundbreaking project because it is the first to be created totally with motion capture technology. The system captures the motion of real-life actors, such as the film's star Tom Hanks, and reflects that digitally. ImageWorks also works on at least one computer-animated film in the style of Shrek per year, Sarnoff said.
Hickel has worked on special effects for movies like "Jurassic Park" and Academy Award-winner "Pirates of the Caribbean." Over that 10-year span, moviegoers have lost the wow factor of the dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park."
"The problem is now, no matter how well we do our work, if the audience sees something that can't be believed they say, 'Oh, that was done by a computer,'" Hickel said. "The pressure is on the creators to come up with concepts that are different."
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