Animal pix make big technological advances in animation

If you were an animal — any kind of animal — chances are you appeared in an animated film in 2006.

“Animals naturally lend themselves to animation, and bands of talking animals setting off on adventures were everywhere this year,” notes Sam Fell, co-director of “Flushed Away,” DreamWorks’ tale of a pampered mouse who gets flushed into the London sewer system. “It seemed like there was a new one every month.”

He’s not kidding. “Happy Feet,” “Over the Hedge,” “The Ant Bully,” “Open Season,” “Curious George,” “Barnyard” and “Ice Age: The Meltdown” all featured the not-so-secret lives of various critters.

And they all demonstrate “huge technical advances,” says Tim Johnson, co-director of “Over the Hedge.” “When I did ‘Antz’ eight years ago, it was an attractive project as you didn’t have to deal with any fur or fabric, which was a big problem to animate.

“But now in ‘Hedge,’ not only does every character have fur, but it’s a different texture, density, length and color. So all the stuff that was literally impossible a few years back is now doable, thanks to all the new CG tools and faster computers. It’s revolutionized animation and allows us to dream bigger and with a far wider palette.”

Bigger dreams parallel animation’s increasing globalization, agrees Fell, who points out that “Flushed Away” began as the brainchild of Britain’s Aardman Animations and Oscar winner Nick Park (“Wallace & Gromit”), who then teamed up with DreamWorks.

“Animation is such big box office now that the focus is going to be less on the American box office and more on the international scene in future,” he says. “And that means more varied, eclectic films.”

“We used hundreds of artists from all over the world — Africa, China, Europe, Latin America,” says “Happy Feet” Aussie director George Miller (“Babe”) of his first CGI film. “It was like the U.N., and we developed cutting-edge technology to animate all the penguins.”

But it wasn’t all animals all the time. “Cars,” from Oscar-winning director John Lasseter and Pixar Animation Studios, is the seventh film from the hit-assembling factory and the first to be directed by Lasseter since “Toy Story 2.” For Lasseter, the big change is the level of detail in “Cars.”

“And that’s due to huge advances in the speed of CPUs and memory, which lets us do more complex imagery,” he says. To get the film’s photo-realistic look, Lasseter also used quickly evolving techniques like ray tracing.

“We’d used it on some of our other films, here and there, but it was this challenge that made it really robust and integrated,” he says, “and then we used it extensively through the whole film to make all the chrome and enamel paint and glass look totally realistic.”

And there are no cute talking cars or animals in director Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly,” a paranoid drug tale based on the novel by Philip K. Dick.

“It was like making two films at once,” Linklater notes. “First, it was originally shot and edited as live action, and this footage was then graphically painted frame by frame via computer by a team of more than 30 artists over 18 months.”

The result? A film that plays like a graphic novel come to life, thanks to its use of live-action photography overlaid with the advanced animation process known as interpolated rotoscoping.

French writer-director Michel Gondry won an Oscar for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and his follow-up, “The Science of Sleep,” creates a unique, surreal dreamscape using a very different mix of animation and live action.

“I decided to use animation for the dream sequences before we even started shooting,” he says. “For the scenes where the main character flies, I thought about having him in a big water tank, with back projection, instead of using bluescreen or wires. And the effect is very magical for me. You have all this texture in the hair and no electronic artifacts. It’s perfect for a dream, and for me it’s the most immediate way to create what’s inside my head.”

Gondry did all the animation — all the “dream stuff” — long before he began shooting the rest of the film. “I had a crew of about 10 — two animators, the d.p., construction guys — and we spent a few months doing it.

“The animation was very detailed, but it’s not like those animated films where everything is perfect. I didn’t want that look, where you can hardly tell the difference between animation and CGI because it’s so perfect.

“Then after all the animation was done, we went and shot the rest of the film six months later in Paris, and that way the actors could all participate more as they understood what kind of world they’d be in.”

The 2006 contenders’ recognition in the animation field is just the beginning.

“I see a real renaissance in European animation,” Fell says, “and just wait till places like China, India and Japan explode.”

And then there’s the Internet, “which is a huge outlet for all kinds of new formats and lengths,” Fell observes, “so animation is just getting bigger and bigger.”

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