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Computerized films grow up

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos reports from this year's Siggraph show that advances in digital technology are rapidly changing Hollywood's approach to film animation.

Dan Taylor, a special-effects artist at Industrial Light & Magic, readily admits that special effects overshadowed the plot in his early films.

"There was no story structure. It was all 'Get the critters on the screen,'" he said during a roundtable discussion last week at Siggraph, an annual computer-graphics conference that took place in San Diego.

In his defense, those early films were made when he was 10, and they starred a toy dinosaur rampaging through a forest of plastic trees. His perspective changed in his teens, when the "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" made its debut.

"Sergio Leone really drove the technique of storytelling to me," he said.

Taylor's moviemaking journey serves as a broad metaphor for the computer animation industry. Ten to 15 years ago, digital effects in movies were fairly obvious. If you saw a skeleton walking around with a fireball in its hand, you pretty much knew a workstation was involved in the production somewhere. Part of the reason "Jurassic Park" lacked the suspense of "Jaws" stemmed from the fact that the audience knew the dinosaurs were created on a computer screen.

Flash-forward to the present. A huge number of films and commercials rely on digital technology for their production. Hollywood, in fact, has become one of the hot markets for computer hardware and software.

Film studios, video and television production companies will spend roughly $500 million on data storage alone in 2003, according to Tom Coughlin, an independent analyst who tracks the entertainment industry's use of storage. That figure that looks likely to grow by 70 percent annually, according to Coughlin's estimates, which indicate that by 2006, the annual storage needs for the industry will reach 740 petabytes, or 740 million gigabytes.

But as the technology improves, the art of computer animation has begun to drift from its technical moorings. "Eternal Gaze"--a short work directed by Sam Chen--and the French short "Tim Tom" won awards at the computer animation festival at Siggraph, taking the best

The artistic shift can be explained, in part, by the way hardware and computer-animation software has constantly improved.
animated short film award and the jury prize, respectively. Both were produced as black-and-white pieces.

"The tools have matured to the point where people aren't just trying to do a computer animation film, but are experimenting with different animation styles," said Darin Grant, chair of the animated film festival and an animator at effects studio Digital Domain. "Chen was really experimenting with a film noir look."

What's weird is that "Eternal Gaze" doesn't fit with the plot lines of most animated shorts. It is about the final days of Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti. In the film, a claymation-looking Giacometti shuffles about his studio in a tweed sport coat, smokes, criticizes his artistic ability in a dream and, eventually, expires in his studio. The entire dialog consists of his grunting or coughing.

The artistic shift can be explained, in part, by the way hardware and computer-animation software has constantly improved, to the point where it allows animators to escape the "made on silicon" look. Special effects artists from Weta Digital, the New Zealand effects company who created Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," showed at the conference a scanner they developed for capturing organic 3D images. With a few swoops of the scanner, a Weta engineer managed to scan a human skull into a computer.

Directors, animators and audiences, however, are also pushing for more naturalism in storytelling. Colin Brady, another special effects animator from ILM, recalled that he and director Ang Lee were reviewing the performance of Jennifer Connelly in a scene for "The Hulk" while making the movie.

"Do you think we can make Hulk emote like that?" Brady asked the director. Lee replied, "'We'd better,'" Brady said.

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"Sometimes animators have this misconception that 'I don't need to look at real life. I have it all in my head," said Brady. "But all the great masters have studied real life."

Still, fans of traditional animation need not worry that it'll get too highbrow anytime soon, if the work shown at Siggraph is anything to go by. "Eat Your Peas" revolved around a young boy encouraged to off his parents by a pod of demonic peas. In "Show & Tell," from Kapow Pictures, an outcast boy becomes a hero by bringing a dead moose, rotting flesh and a bum to class. Rap and heavy metal remained the most popular musical styles for background music in the screenings, too.

Trolls will also be happy to know that games like "Exigo" and "Warcraft III"--excerpts of which were shown at the festival--are keeping Space Age feudalism alive.