Calculating Cartoons: Physics Simulations Create Convincing Illusions in Films and Games

By Weiss, Peter Ulrich | Science News, January 26, 2002 | Go to article overview

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 countless phenomena in movie and game scenes is a hot area of computer-science research (SN: 4/10/99, p. 15). "As someone watching, you take them completely for granted, but they're incredibly complicated things to get looking right," says animation researcher Nick Foster of PDI Dreamworks in Palo Alto, Calif., the studio that created Shrek, Antz, and numerous short animated films and commercials.

ANIMATING AN ENTIRE WORLD In hand-drawn animated films dating back to the 1930s such as Walt Disney's Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Sleeping Beauty, artists created two-dimensional fantasy worlds by drawing them on sheets of paper or celluloid. Now, armed with computers, animators can digitally make characters, machines, and environments with three-dimensional identities. Released in 1995, the first computer-animated feature film, Pixar's Toy Story, was rendered completely in three dimensions.

Building a simulated 3-D world can be both a boon and a curse. Thoroughly simulating characters and their surroundings makes it possible to look at them from any angle and to manipulate them via computer commands. On the other hand, nearly everything in every scene must have carefully defined physical characteristics and boundaries.

Sometimes it doesn't work out that way, especially when parts of the scene move out of view. For instance, Foster notes, "in computer-animation-land, it's easy for an animator to put part of a character's arm through his stomach," when that's not the intention.

Then, the physics goes haywire. During the making of Monsters, Inc., such a boundary problem at first turned the clothing on some characters into an unrecognizable tangle. "We had days when we doubted if this could be solved," recalls David Baraff of Pixar. …

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