Calculating Cartoons: Physics Simulations Create Convincing Illusions in Films and Games
Weiss, Peter Ulrich, Science News
In the animated film Monsters, Inc., James P. Sullivan is an 8-foot-tall monster who's covered from head to toe in a luxurious powder-blue pelt with faint red polka dots. What makes him stand out in the already eye-popping domain of computer animation is the independent motion of every single one of the 3.2 million hairs on his body. The result is a coat of animated fur that looks soft enough to stroke and behaves with a remarkable degree of realism.
Using the mathematics that accounts for the behavior of miniature systems of springs and weights, computer scientists at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., which released the film last November, devised an efficient way to represent a few thousand of the monster's hairs. Computers then calculated how those representative strands would respond to the motions of the monster's massive body and to gravity, wind, and other conditions of the animated environment. With these few thousand strands serving as guideposts, the computer then interpolated the behavior of the millions of strands between them.
In another 2001 film, Pearl Harbor, real and animated warplanes and ships are indistinguishable as they mingle on the screen. None of the real planes crash, but the animated ones do. The fake planes were rendered graphically using so-called rigid-body models, which essentially let the animators build structures--and blow them up--using a virtual kit of wing and fuselage parts. The puffs of flak that dot the sky in some scenes emanated from a computer simulation of fluid dynamics, replete with equations for heat buildup and pressure waves that add to the verisimilitude.
In those films and many more, including Stuart Little, The Perfect Storm, and Shrek, powerful, physics-based computer simulations are vastly expanding the range of realistic effects that can be brought to the screen. Leaps in computing power and new algorithms for generating simulated action are also transforming the $7-billion computer-game industry.
The physics being simulated "was all basically solved like 300 years ago," notes Chris Hecker, a game developer in Oakland, Calif. But getting the simulations to play out accurately and efficiently for the …
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Publication information: Article title: Calculating Cartoons: Physics Simulations Create Convincing Illusions in Films and Games. Contributors: Weiss, Peter Ulrich - Author. Magazine title: Science News. Volume: 161. Issue: 4 Publication date: January 26, 2002. Page number: 56+. © 2009 Science Service, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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