Hollywood whistles a high-tech 'toon

DreamWorks Animation has pulled off a successful IPO, and "Shrek" is a star, but the Holy Grail of "CG" cartoons is a long way off.

Hollywood loves computer-generated animation, and everyone from Main Street to Wall Street is returning the love.

The winning combination of technology, art and commerce was on display this week in DreamWorks Animation's initial public offering. Building on the financial success of this year's "Shark Tale" and "Shrek 2" releases, DreamWorks on Thursday spun off the animation unit, raising $812 million in a deal that saw shares soar from $28 to $38.75 by market close.

The IPO highlights the growing sway of technology in the animation business, where breakthroughs in software, processing power and data storage can be as important as raw artistic ability.


What's new:
DreamWorks Animation's successful IPO highlights the growing sway of technology in the animation business, where breakthroughs in software, processing power and data storage can be as important as raw artistic ability.

Bottom line:
The Holy Grail among computer animators is a realistic rendering of a human being. That'll take a while. In the meantime, the effects keep getting better. But then, audiences keep getting more discerning.

More stories on computer animation

"No matter how much faster computers get, it takes the same amount of time to render computer animated movies, because the effects keep getting more sophisticated," said Scott Owen, a professor of computer science at the University of Georgia and an adviser for Siggraph, the computer animation industry's main annual trade show.

Computer-generated, or CG, 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 fuelling a cocky you-haven't-seen-anything-yet attitude in the business, with predictions of future breakthroughs that could one day create realistic skin tones and facial expressions capable of mimicking human actors perfectly.

For "Shark Tale," DreamWorks' software developers created more than a dozen new custom software tools, with over 2,300 features and enhancements.

Two of the biggest advancements in the field in recent years have involved creating the illusion of reflected light. Stanford University experts Henrik Wann Jensen, Stephen R. Marschner and Pat Hanrahan wrote a technical paper detailing the breakthrough algorithm--subsurface scattering--for which they won an Oscar. Subsurface scattering allows animators to create the illusion of translucency, or light passing through skin or marble.

Another technique DreamWorks has pioneered is global illumination, an effect that shows the natural way light reflects in a room or across surfaces in a given setting. For "Shark Tale," the production team used a tool for a form of global illumination called a bounce shader, which gauges where and how light will bounce from surface to surface. The visual effects team used the tool to create the illusion of natural light and shadows for undersea scenes.

But more-sophisticated algorithms call for greater computing power. For "Shark Tale," more than 300,000 frames were created during production, and each frame required more than 40 hours to render.

Box-office gold

Computer-generated animation features rank among the top-grossing U.S. films of all time.

MovieYear Box-office revenue
Box-office ranking
Shrek 22004$436.53
Finding Nemo2003$339.712
Monsters, Inc.2001$255.929
Toy Story 21999$245.833
Source: Internet Movie Database

The production used more than 30 terabytes of disk space--the equivalent of 54,000 CD-ROM discs--and more than five miles of film.

But the biggest advance for which animators pray is speed.

DreamWorks continually updates its processors so animators can get instant feedback on changes to a scene. More than 2,000 processors and more than 6 million CPU (central processing unit) hours were used to render "Shark Tale."

Increasingly, the computers used to produce rich animated graphics are becoming generic, industry watchers say. Some animation studios used to use Silicon Graphics machines powered by a proprietary Unix system. But now, studios including DreamWorks and Industrial Light and Magic are moving to Linux-powered machines.

For "Shrek 2," DreamWorks took a novel step toward licensing computational power from Hewlett-Packard. The company effectively rented HP computers in the final three months of production, when

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