Use of Digital Characters in Movies Likely to Increase

OK, they probably don’t come cheap. But they don’t throw tantrums, don’t belong to a union, do what they’re told and always arrive at the set on time.

And if you draw them right, they’re sure to be a hit with the fans.

Digital characters may not replace live actors anytime soon, but expect them to show up more often on the movie screens, according to animation experts.

The use of digital characters in movies is growing thanks to technology advances and the seemingly insatiable public appetite for virtual villains such as Golem in The Lord of the Rings and computer-created sages like Yoda in Star Wars.

"Reality is boring. Viewers want to see something beyond reality," explained Maurice Patel, senior product manager for marketing of software developer Autodesk in Toronto. "Synthetic characters are still quite far from taking over real actors, but expect to see more of them in movies."

Paul Wollenziene, computer graphics (CG) animator and principal of Toronto animation company Rune Entertainment, agreed.

"The level of believability in animation has risen tremendously. I see the technology being used for more characters in the near future," said 27-year-old Wollenziene, who worked on his first professional project at age 16.

Another graphics expert identified the key reason for the growing interest in digital characters.

"You don’t have to pay them, and their bodies can be real flawless," said Aldines Zepparoli, animation technologist at the Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont. "I think it’s fine to use CG characters to tell a story, but I would find it creepy if they replaced real actors."

Zepparoli said CG effects are great for producing the "money shot"—scenes guaranteed to wow the audience.

Today’s 3-D imaging software is also being used to aid visualization in industries such as architecture and medicine as well as help Canadian soldiers avoid land mines.

In the movie industry, artists at special effects outfit Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) of San Rafael, Calif., used Autodesk’s Maya 3-D animation to "bring to life" the misguided escapades of Capt. Jack Sparrow in this summer’s hit movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

Apart from composing breathtaking scenes, artists also used Maya to graft a wriggling beard of tentacles onto the face of evil Capt. Davy Jones and create his hideous pet, the Kraken.

The Autodesk Discreet Inferno system was used by ILM to create supernatural scenes for the movie Lady in the Water. Lola VFX, a Santa Monica, Calif., visual effects company, also employed the same system to make Professor Xavier and arch enemy Magneto look 20 years younger in this year’s X-Men: The Last Stand.

Software might not replace actors, but it can save stuntmen a few broken bones, according to Patel. "For scenes that are just too dangerous for stuntmen to do, such as those in the Spider-Man and X-Men movies, digital stunt doubles were employed."

Wollenziene said Maya, even back when it was owned by Toronto-based Alias, is popular among animators because it is an "outstanding animation tool that allows creators to customize to fit their production needs."

Studios often use software like Maya to create a virtual gene pool.

"Higher-end studios will use Maya for fairly standard work such as modeling and use proprietary software to render the finishing touches," he said.

Nearly three-fourths of the top 50 grossing films of all time are heavily driven by CG, according to Jill Ramsey, senior production manager for Maya.

A decade ago, computer animation was primarily done on huge servers. It was only around the late 1990s that personal computers with adequate computing power for the job were developed, said Ramsey.

Creating effects and characters for movies require vast amounts of data crunching. "A typical movie today can eat up four to eight terabytes of data even before you start working on the raw scenes. This does not include creating the characters yet," said Ramsey.

Films that feature synthetic characters like Yoda or King Kong could take a year to produce because of the complexity of the 3-D animation involved explains Wollenziene. "A two-minute scene with Golem may take weeks to create."

Twenty years ago, CG effects were limited to spaceships and scaly dragons. The technology couldn’t effectively depict skin and dynamic hair, said Ramsey. "We are now at the stage where nearly every barrier has been broken."

She said the challenge now is to make CG more cost-efficient.

One of the barriers is the ability to create the so-called dynamic hair, or hair that moves and reacts just as real hair does. There’s also a fine line, according to Ramsey, between the believable and the spooky.

"There’s something not quite right" when CG characters are made to appear like real humans in the context of a realistic movie, observed Zepparoli.

The theory of the uncanny valley suggests that as animation approaches reality, viewers tend to be turned off because the visuals are just too close for comfort.

This aversion is said to taper off when the simulation becomes so indistinguishable from the real thing that it goes unnoticed.

In some instances, Wollenziene said, a movie viewer will not appreciate a car explosion when presented the way a vehicle blows up in reality. "Some people would expect more flames, smoke and flying debris."

When working on a project, he doesn’t merely strive to capture reality, but also ponders how an effect or animation can be used to best tell the story at hand.

"It’s not all about imitating reality," said Wollenziene.

-Nestor E. Arellano, ITWorldCanada.com

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