Animation: Virtually Lifelike; Computer Creates 'Live' objects.(LIFE - SCIENCE &Amp; TECHNOLOGY)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

Animation: Virtually Lifelike; Computer Creates 'Live' objects.(LIFE - SCIENCE &Amp; TECHNOLOGY)


Byline: Jen Waters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The days of making animated feature films solely from hand-drawn sketches are finished, says Jamy Sheridan, a professor of digital arts. When teaching his students at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Mr. Sheridan makes sure they understand how the process was done in the early days by filming transparent hand-painted cels. He also introduces them to the animation that is being created through today's technology.

Clearly, the field has come a long way since 1928, when Walt Disney Studios introduced Mickey Mouse in "Steamboat Willie."

"We are moving into a world in the computer where you create objects," Mr. Sheridan says. "If you have a computer, you can make your own film, if you know what you're doing."

Computer animation is a growing field with revolutionary technologies that have gained immense popularity with the success of blockbuster movies such as "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." The technology also is used widely for commercials and video games. At times, film and animation are even synchronized for a seamless result.

Dan Philips, vice president of production at Big Idea Productions in Lombard, Ill., says "Jonah, A VeggieTales Movie," the animated feature film released this month by his company, used software such as Maya, a modeling and animation package made by Alias Wavefront in Toronto. The program also develops backgrounds, casts light and shadows on objects and gives texture to items.

Completing the movie took two years of intense work, Mr. Philips says. About 100 people contributed to the animation every week throughout the duration of the project.

"People look at animation and think, 'Oh, that's fun,' but they don't realize how tedious it is," he says. "They think it's magic."

When using Maya to design the characters in movies, such as "Jonah's" Bob the Tomato and Archibald Asparagus, animators sculpt objects on the computer screen to the desired shape, Mr. Philips says.

The computer saves the information on an invisible grid, recording the mathematical coordinates for the structures. As the animated creatures move, the graphic software interprets the mathematical variations and displays them as images.

"The human person specifies the way each thing looks, but the computer does the number crunching to achieve it," Mr. Philips says. "Underneath it all, it's mathematical programming, but a great big set of humans have to decide what they want it to look like."

Dariush Derakhshani, an animator at Sight Effects in Venice, Calif., says this technology is not limited to movies. Using Maya, he has created many virtual objects to enhance commercials, such as a talking cow for the company Gateway in Poway, Calif., and animated squirrels for Electronic Data Systems in Plano, Texas.

"Animation is a really big part of commercials," Mr. Derakhshani says. "If you take note of what you are watching, a background with a lush green landscape and beautiful blue sky was probably put together in a computer."

Three-dimensional animation also has caused the standard of video games to rise, says David Stinnett, co-owner of Blur Studio in Venice, Calif. His company's clients include Miramax/Dimension Films, Disney, Hanna-Barbera and DreamWorks Interactive.

"If you look at the games done now and years ago, it's so much better quality now," Mr. Stinnett says. "There are a lot of animators out there that are really talented, and they know the software really well."

While studying at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, cinema and television students learn to use the programs that are a mainstay of professional animators, says Richard Weinberg, research professor and chief technologist at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television.

"The tools have changed fairly radically and continue to evolve on a weekly basis," Mr. …

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