May 23, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

'Madagascar' pushes tech limits

The new film "Madagascar," DreamWorks Animation's animated follow-on to the smash hit "Shrek 2," could be described as a hairy technology challenge played out onscreen.

With a cast of zoo animals and hundreds of furry lemurs on the film's namesake island, the animators had to push the limits of technology to render an eye-catching yet believable effect. Every hair on every animal represented a line of computer code, for a countless number of algorithms that had to be compressed and rendered overnight to create the images in just one scene.

Madagascar

Alex the Lion, for example, the motion picture's animated star played by Ben Stiller, had 1.7 million hairs on his head and each one represented a series of 1s and 0s. Just a few years ago, depicting only five furry beasts in one scene would have been nearly impossible--the computer hourglass icon would likely turn for months--but "Madagascar" shows almost 1,000 at once in one primate dance scene.

"There's more data than ever before--we had to render it, light it, shade it," said Philippe Gluckman, visual FX supervisor for "Madagascar," which took four years to make. "Years ago if there were only five or six lemurs we'd have run out of memory."

Breakthroughs in computing power in recent years and "learning how to bend the code to your will," as the film's directors say, are key to creating new animation feats. Software to compress files is also shortening the amount of time it takes to render or complete the computer animation of each scene.

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What's new:
Breakthroughs in computing power allowed the animators of "Madagascar" to conjure up eye-catching effects for a cast of zoo animals and hundreds of furry lemurs on the film's namesake island.

Bottom line:
Such computing advances have helped spark a golden age of animation, inspiring producers and animators to reach for never-seen-before effects to wow audiences and win awards.

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Such computing advances have helped spark a golden age of animation, as some say, inspiring producers and animators to reach for never-seen-before effects to wow audiences and win awards. Pixar's "The Incredibles" won the Academy Award for best animated feature this year, while in 2001 DreamWorks' "Shrek" won the first Oscar ever presented in that category.

Computer-generated animated feature films are drawing raves for their stunning visual effects and clever writing. But the industry--and the technology behind it--is still in its infancy. That's fueling a competitive attitude in the business, with predictions of future breakthroughs that could one day create even more realistic skin tones and facial expressions capable of perfectly mimicking human actors.

"If you can dream it, you can make it--that's what technology has done," Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks, said during a panel discussion promoting the film "Madagascar," which he produced.

Katzenberg, executive producer of hits "Shrek 2" and "Shark Tale," said that since producing "Aladdin" in 1992, technology has revolutionized animated filmmaking, affecting everything from the most mundane to the most complex details. For example, in that

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