Marvin the Martian, a 3-D pathfinder

While the goal of most computer animation is realism, the creators of “Marvin the Martian in the 3rd Dimension,” a CG, 3-D special venue film produced for Warner Bros.’ international Movie World parks, faced a different problem: how to make sophisticated digital imagery resemble a hand-drawn cartoon of the 1950s.

Because cel animation techniques can only approximate stereoscopic 3-D (the kind requiring polarized glasses) by separating 2-D planes, computer animation was required to render the 13-minute short in full 3-D. The trick was in not sacrificing the traditional look of the Looney Tunes characters.

“Although I loved ‘Toy Story’ and thought the characters worked brilliantly as CGI characters, you couldn’t have Daffy Duck and Marvin the Martian looking like little PVC characters,” says Kathleen Helppie-Shipley, senior VP of classic animation for Warners, and producer of the film. “Audiences have loved these characters in traditional animated form for 50 years.”

After a full year of experimenting with a motion-capture system, that idea was abandoned. “It looked too much like someone was in a suit working out,” recalls animator Gael Harlow, who worked on the project.

Even using accepted computer animation techniques proved to be a problem. “Computer animation made its own style from the ease of being able to key one point and another point, and the computer does all the in-betweens,” notes animator Andrew Gordon. (In-betweens are drawings that bridge the action between a character’s key poses.) “It’s slow, floaty, ease-in and ease-out for every move, and Looney Tunes does everything but that.”

Ultimately, it was decided to animate the entire picture in rough form by hand then scan the drawings into the computer, as was done with the toon sequences for Warners’ 1996 hit “Space Jam.” But rather than putting the digitized hand-animation onscreen, the hand drawings were used solely as reference by the CG animators. “The director (Douglas McCarthy) was on them constantly to make sure that there was no generation lost between the computer character and the drawn character,” production designer Alan Bodner says.

Which is not to say that the computer animators were denied artistic liberty. “One of the reasons that this looks a lot different from other computer animation that you’ve seen is because we weren’t afraid to totally mess with the model,” animator Glenn Storm says. “We would stretch it, warp it, put in multiple arms and legs and really work the characters, which computer animators are afraid to do.”

A battalion of CG studios, including PDI, Atomix, DreamQuest Images, Metrolight, Will Vinton Studios and Santa Barbara Studios, were engaged to complete the computer work, using four basic software packages: Softimage, Alias, Wavefront and Prism. But the key to making the computer tooning look traditional came through the writing of proprietary software that put a hard line around the characters and shaded them like cel toons, rather than lighting them in cyberspace.

Similar attempts to disguise digital animation as cel tooning can be found in Disney’s “Hercules,” which features a CG hydra, and in Fox’s upcoming “Anastasia,” which places cel characters on a digitally created runaway train.

Much of the background painting for the film was done by hand as well, using the 1950s Chuck Jones classics “Duck Dodgers in the 24th Century” and “Hare-Way to the Stars” as design models, then input into the computer as texture mapping. Similarly, the layout for the short was done in the traditional manner and then translated into 3-D blueprints.

Even greater challenges were faced by working in stereoscopic 3-D, a format that was new to virtually the entire production team. “Three-D is an extremely tough medium,” says the film’s exec producer, Jim House, VP of audio/visual for Warner Bros. Recreational Enterprises. “It requires a slower pace. We started out with a 10-minute movie and ended up with 13, and a good portion of it was just slowing it down so that your brain could pick up the 3-D and so the offscreen effects would work.”

The finished film, presented in eight-channel sound, opens at Christmas at Warner Bros. Movie World in Australia. It already is playing at Warner’s Movie World park in Germany and at the company’s flagship studio store in New York. And that, for Helppie-Shipley, is the only down side of the film, which was almost a year in production.

“Unless you’re in Germany or New York, a lot of people won’t get a chance to see it,” she says, “and it really is a phenomenal piece of 3-D filmmaking.”

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