How Computer Artists Create Movie 'Actors'

By Atkin, Ross | The Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1998 | Go to article overview

How Computer Artists Create Movie 'Actors'


Atkin, Ross, The Christian Science Monitor


Without Geoff Campbell and other special-effects artists, there was no way to remake the movie "101 Dalmatians" - except to trim the canine cast by about 99 dogs.

Disney used cartoons to fill the big screen in its 1961 version. But in 1996, the studio wanted realism. They used real actors and a few real Dalmatians.

Mr. Campbell made the rest of the dogs out of thin air, using a computer.

Computer-generated puppies were perfect. They would do just what the director wanted. The "virtual" pooches blended in with the real ones. (Look at the photos on this page. Can you tell?)

"It took six weeks to create a puppy model of a dog that is nine weeks old," Campbell says. The process began with a ball of clay and a photograph of a dog. The clay model was scanned into a computer. Now it was a computer model, and the virtual pup could be animated (made to move around), colored, and altered in other ways.

That's what Campbell does at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in San Rafael, Calif. It's a well-known special-effects company. ILM is a "postproduction company." It does its work after the original photography has been done. Technicians mix computer-generated images with real film footage.

The Monitor visited Campbell to learn more about movie special effects.

San Rafael is 20 miles north of San Francisco, far from Hollywood. Here George Lucas, maker of the "Star Wars" movies, founded Industrial Light & Magic in 1975.

Campbell greeted us in his work clothes: jeans and a T-shirt. We met in a room used to fit computer users with equipment. (Computer work stations must feel comfortable for long hours of mouse clicking.)

Campbell's office is off-limits to outsiders while he's working on Lucas's new "Stars Wars" movie, which comes out next year. Until then, everything about the film is top secret.

Campbell is part of a large team at ILM. "People come to work here from every point of the globe," he says. "At last count I think there were people from 25 countries."

He couldn't tell us what he's doing for the new "Star Wars" movie. But he could talk about "101 Dalmatians," which is typical of what he does.

For that film, the director wanted to see a three-dimensional clay model of a puppy before filming. A modelmaker sculpted a prototype. Once it was approved, the model was carefully cut into pieces. The pieces were scanned into a computer, and a computer model was assembled. That was Campbell's job as a CG (computer-generated) modeler. He made what's called a "wire frame" computer model.

It's like making a papier-mache model, only on a computer. The "frame" is meticulously shaped, expressions created, and electronic skeleton built that lets the model to move realistically.

For "101 Dalmatians," where many similar images were needed, Campbell copied the prototype dog and made changes in the copies so the puppies would look different.

Before a computer animator took over, the puppy needed skin. The frame was covered with a uniform base coat of color. A skilled computer painter added the details - including fur.

An animator programmed the movement of the computer models. For "101 Dalmatians," that meant developing basic walking and running programs and using them to animate the puppies. The running speeds and motions were varied so the puppies looked more realistic.

The final handoff in this team effort was to the technical director. His job was to take this CG puppy and make sure it was seamlessly entered in the movie. (More on that later.)

SINCE coming to ILM in 1990, Campbell has helped put creepy aliens into "Men in Black" (1997), dinosaurs into "The Flintstones" (1994) and "Jurassic Park" (1993), and jungle animals into "Jumanji" (1995). …

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