Computer effects leap ahead

When bloodthirsty dinosaurs lumber across the screen with startling realism this summer in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” audiences are expected to shrink in horror. With luck, Universal Pictures’ big-budget action pic will deliver what’s quietly been promised by the special effects community: A quantum leap in computer-created imagery.

By combining live action with extremely sophisticated computer animation, the two worlds will neatly co-exist as never before.

“It is clearly state of the art, beyond ‘Terminator 2,’ ” says “Jurassic” producer Kathleen Kennedy. “It’s unique because you’re dealing with real, moving things. As we move closer in technology to create eating, breathing things, we’re making a fascinating breakthrough. That’s the threshold we’re encroaching on. What you’ll see is very real–completely real.”

Indeed, Hollywood’s quest for making the unreal seem real may be on the verge of breaking that threshold. In 1993, the very nature of moviemaking is going to change as computer technology stretches the boundaries of what’s believable.

Along with “Jurassic,” audiences are going to be treated to Columbia’s “The Last Action Hero,” in which Arnold Schwarzenegger literally pops off the screen; and from Disney, the videogame come to life–“Super Mario Brothers.” To make all this and more possible, competition between the biggest computer hardware companies, whose equipment is at the core of these productions, has heated up dramatically.

Already, market leader Silicon Graphics Inc. scored a coup in the park’s control room in the film. It’s so chock-full of SGI’s machines, it will be one huge product placement.

But even though LucasArts Entertainment’s Industrial Light & Magic unit created “Jurassic’s” dinosaurs on machines from SGI, several companies, including IBM, Apple and even Eastman-Kodak, are vying for dominance in a market that focuses on such special effects skills as digitally compositing images or rendering and modeling animated characters.

“We are in a hardware war right now,” says Bill Villareal, digital compositing director at Pacific Title, a top opticals house. “IBM has come in and is really hitting hard where SGI’s bread and butter has been.”

IBM’s entrance into the market with its Power Visualization System was quite by accident. The high-powered system was created for industrial designers, like Honda Motors, admits Armando Garcia, IBM’s director of visualization systems. But once the IBM exex met Boss Films prexy Richard Edlund, who helped craft F/X for the “Star Wars” pix, they knew they had a product to sell.

“Though the market is quite small,” says Garcia, “ultimately, in the next five to 10 years, it will be quite large–several billion dollars. That kind of money is spent today on production, from editing suites to optical equipment.”

“IBM bounced into the entertainment market and saw an opportunity,” Ken Simms , head of SGI sales in Hollywood. “We’ve seen them poking at our accounts.”

IBM has already clinched several big-name buyers, including Boss Films, R/Greenberg & Assocs., Pacific Title, F/X wizard Doug Trumbull’s firm and, reportedly, ILM.

A single frame of film contains more than 20 megabytes of data, and IBM’s system can move 100 megabytes of information a second at its peak, compared to a tenth of that for conventional workstations.

“The PVS speeds up everything, from 10 to 60 times,” says Edlund. “That translates to moving images through a firehose, rather than a straw.”

All that speed and storage space doesn’t come cheap– its pricetag is $ 1.2 million a system. But that won’t be the price for long. SGI’s workhorse computer , the Indigo Elan, cost $ 120,000 a year ago and is $ 30,000 today. When the price fell, F/X house Rhythm & Hues bought 10 this summer.

IBM’s edge in speed will also likely disappear this year. SGI’s next machine is expected to be out in the first quarter of 1993. And even though Apple doesn’t yet field comparable equipment, it’s expected to have a high-powered workstation, code-named Mac 3, to go head to head with SGI by the end of summer. Apple, which has long dominated TV visual effects, also wants to move into SGI’s turf. When it does, it will bring a wealth of familiar software programs.

Said Micheal Backes, a computer graphics designer fresh from “Jurassic”: “It’s going to be the case of the empire striking back next year with SGI. It’s literally the Ferrari of graphics computing.”

Still, wild cards include Quantel’s new Domino compositing system, which also carries a $ 1 million-plus price tag, and Kodak’s Cineon system, which may or may not be for sale.

While the hardware-makers battle it out, the ultimate winners are the special effects designers who use these machines.

With prices collapsing and power soaring, most producers view the computer firms as offering a short-term advantage at best. Richard Hollander, head of Video Image Associates’ computer generated imagery group, says, “These machines have two-year life spans, and no (machine) is excluded.”

Even IBM’s ability to expand its speed and capacity can’t protect its new-found market. Says Edlund: “The fact that we have an IBM doesn’t mean we won’t get the SGI when it comes out.”

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