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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 it needed more rendering muscle. Still, the dominant cost for making a feature-length animated film is for labor, not computing power.

Clearing some of the technical hurdles, animators now must ensure that the design of characters is appealing to viewers. Rendering human beings is so complex--moviegoers watch the effects with an unconscious scrutiny--that many creators opt for stylized or fictional characters such as monsters or animals.

"The computer graphics explosion is ideally yet to come, when we make human characteristics more organic," said Nick Foster, DreamWorks' head of animation software.

As of 1990, visual effects were still done photochemically. Back then, it was an uncertainty whether computers could produce realistic human characters, but PCs were used to create some hard-surface objects such as spaceships in the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

Only 10 years ago, animation was still more like drawing flip books. Master animators would sketch what's called a key frame--for example, a boy with his arm cocked to throw a football. Then the next frame drawn would be of the boy with his arm forward with the ball leaving his hand. Instead of a book of frames that could be "flipped through" to create the illusion of fluidity, software developed to a point at which it can render the sequences and movement in between each frame.

Computers calculate the mathematical algorithms necessary to connect the dots. For a more complex scene, an animator might add another key frame, and the software again would be programmed to give the illusion of movement between frames. Now animators don't need to sketch frames; it's all done with the click of a mouse.

Pixar's 1995 film "Toy Story" was a milestone in the computer animation field because it was the first all-digital feature film. It also underscored the challenges in creating realistic human characters--the toys were believable because viewers had no real reference point, but the adults and child in the film were poor substitutes.

The film struck box-office gold, spurring competitors to join in the race to perfect computer-generated animation technology.

Film director Steven Spielberg, one-time Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and music impresario David Geffen founded DreamWorks SKG in 1994. Since then, the animation unit has made four films using computer-generated animation. Its next computer-animated film will be "Madagascar," slated for release in early 2005.

Even Walt Disney, the company that helped pioneer hand-drawn animation in the 1930s, jumped on the bandwagon, winning a deal to distribute Pixar's films. The relationship has come under stress recently, with Pixar breaking off talks to extend the partnership. Disney's president and chief operating officer, Robert Iger, last month told CNBC that it's "unlikely" Disney will strike a new Pixar deal.

The final film Disney will distribute with Pixar under the deal is "Cars," set for release in 2005.

The uncanny valley
Animators and visual effects experts agree that the Holy Grail of computer graphics is bringing realistic human characters to life on the big screen.

"At some point in the future, we will have true human characters--that's something people are striving for--but it will take a few years," Owen said. "We need a lot more understanding of how humans move, how humans act, and more understanding of our perception--to figure out what we do when we take in information. It's important to creating these effects."

Still, computer graphics professionals walk a fine line. Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori has described people's emotional response to humanlike robots as the "uncanny valley," because fondness for the robots often falls off a cliff when they become too real.

The human face has so many subtleties that a slight muscle or eye movement can dramatically change the meaning of an expression. To study facial expression and capture it is one of the hardest things to do, said DreamWorks supervising animator Tim Cheung.

For this reason, DreamWorks' animators try to achieve "stylized realism" in their films, in which they give the characters the complexity of human appearance and emotion but don't try to replicate it too closely.

Making characters too realistic can turn off the audience. In Shrek, for example, many viewers felt the character of the talking donkey was more "real" than the human princess Fiona.

Like other studios, DreamWorks has developed technology to make the process simpler. Its software contains information on the human physical anatomy and its traits, allowing an animator to program, with one control, movement that reverberates throughout the body.

For example, when the enchantress in Shrek breathes, the movement travels from her shoulders to her belly. The animator would use one command to create that effect so the one action carries the function throughout the structure of the body.

"We're looking to push the envelope on each film, and that requires us to invent new tools," Cheung said. "We write all our own software."

Merging visual effects
Hal Hickel, animation director for effects specialist Industrial Light and Magic, said that in the last decade the computer graphics industry has been bent on making things such as smoke, fire and water appear realistic on screen. Now, he said, the industry's in an evolutionary period, improving the believability of facial expressions and the movement of hair and clothing.

The artistic pursuit is to create realistic humans, or one day, digital stunt doubles for actors.

"We're being asked more and more to create digital versions of actors. For that reason, doing realistic humans is becoming an important goal," Hickel said. "But it's a goal we're going to be chasing for a while."

Tim Sarnoff, president of Sony Pictures ImageWorks, a visual effects and animation unit, said the difference between computer graphics imagery and visual effects is decreasing every day. Visual effects are photo-realistic, live-action plates with digital elements imposed in places. Visual effects, such as those used in the battle scenes in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, have merged with computer graphics in the last 10 years, thanks to a greater ability to impose animated characters in those plates, he said. "Suddenly you have a style of animation side by side with the real world, and that's blurring the lines between what was originally considered visual effects and what is now considered digital effects computer graphics imagery."

That melding of worlds is making it more difficult for people to discern what elements in films are computer generated. For example, in the film "Seabiscuit" there were 150 shots that were altered or set with a computer.

"You never want any effect that pulls people away from the movie. The goal is to deliver the technology that makes the film," Sarnoff said.

ImageWorks also worked on the upcoming film "Polar Express," a groundbreaking project because it is the first to be created totally with motion capture technology. The system captures the motion of real-life actors, such as the film's star Tom Hanks, and reflects that digitally. ImageWorks also works on at least one computer-animated film in the style of Shrek per year, Sarnoff said.

Hickel has worked on special effects for movies like "Jurassic Park" and Academy Award-winner "Pirates of the Caribbean." Over that 10-year span, moviegoers have lost the wow factor of the dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park."

"The problem is now, no matter how well we do our work, if the audience sees something that can't be believed they say, 'Oh, that was done by a computer,'" Hickel said. "The pressure is on the creators to come up with concepts that are different."