Toons unleash CG genie

Latest animated pics expand on 3-D technology

It is time to hang up the explorer hats and put the bullwhips back into storage because the Holy Grails of computer animation have been found. Chief among these so-called grails, toward which every contender in the CG toon trenches have been working for years, are the creation of a completely realistic digital human, and the refinement of realistic surface textures, such as hair, cloth and liquid. And in one of the most competitive summers for animation in recent years, the results of this grail hunting will be readily on display.

First out of the gate in this year’s technical achievement race was PDI/DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” a film that eschews total photo-realism in favor of stylized realism. But even at that, animating a predominantly human cast as opposed to toys, insects or other fantasy characters, provided a major technological challenge.

“Here we have a movie that would succeed or fail based on whether we were able to pull off empathetic characters that you buy for the story,” says Ken Bielenberg, the film’s visual effects supervisor. “But when we started the movie (four years ago), we had to take it on faith that we would be able to do that.”

New digital tools also allowed the filmmakers to free up the camera, which in the past has had limited mobility, down to minute, subliminal details. “We put in five frame delays between the pan and the tilt, and a seven-frame delay between the dolly and the tilt, so you feel as though there’s a grip pushing a dolly,” notes Simon J. Smith, the film’s head of layout. “You don’t notice this stuff per se, but you’d notice it if it wasn’t there, so (the effect) is that you’re watching a movie and not a bunch of regurgitated images that come out of a box that deals with zeroes and ones.”

While “Shrek” remains rooted in cartoonish reality, Columbia’s “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” a sci-fi action-adventure produced by Hawaii-based Square Co., Ltd., zooms in the opposite direction, achieving a level of synthetic realism so advanced that could give an actor’s rep nightmares. Andy Jones, “Final Fantasy’s” animation director, says a major key to the realism is a refined motion capture system that eradicates the jerkiness of past mo-cap.

“Our system pipes the motion capture directly into the controls that the animator would normally use on the characters,” Jones says. “We can choose to turn it on or off with the individual parts of the body, and it enabled them to edit, adjust and even key frame (hand animate) at times.

For Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Osmosis Jones,” a live-action/animated comedy buddy film set in part inside the human body, computers were employed to not only animate one of the lead characters, a cold-capsule named “Drix” (the other characters in the film are cel animated), but also to bring scale and size to the settings. “We’re playing the body as a big city and the veins and the arteries are the freeway system,” says Piet Kroon, co-director (with Tom Sito) of the animation. “(The computer) is a most effective way to give your picture a lot more scope.”

The blending of 2-D and 3-D has been pushed even further by Walt Disney Feature Animation in “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” which utilizes digital animation elements in virtually every scene — not that most people will notice.

“We want you to forget we’re using digital animation,” says “Atlantis” producer Don Hahn. “For a while, we were doing the opposite, we were saying: ‘How can we blow the audience away with the wildebeest stampede (from “The Lion King”)?’ Now we’re not as worried about grandstanding for the audience with our technique.”

To facilitate the digital disguise, Disney’s computer technicians devised “Inka,” advanced ink line software that takes 3-D elements and renders them with a 2-D cel animation look. “The whole challenge of this movie, because there was so much digital, was to make it look like it blends in with the hand-drawn artwork,” says Kiran Joshi, artistic supervisor for digital production on “Atlantis.” “For any three-dimensional object that we built in the computer, we can generate line artwork to make it look hand-drawn.”

Will photo-realism and stylized realism continue as parallel tracks in animation? Probably, at least for the near future. But even those like Jones, who have toiled to achieve photo-reality, see it ultimately as a tool in service of artistry. “It was challenging to get (“Final Fantasy”) 90% photo real,” he says, “but to push that extra 10% would take much more time and resources, and I’m not sure I want to do that. We can take those tools and what we’ve learned and create an environment that nobody’s ever seen, stylize it and get even more abstract.”