Special-Effects Company Earns a Niche

Kleiser-Walczak's computer animation gives the effect of cruising through an Egyptian pyramid's interior

THE ride jostles and startles passengers as their careening craft narrowly misses jagged outcroppings and crystalline pillars. The sensations of movement are intense, but no one is really going anywhere. They're strapped into seats on a hydraulically controlled moving platform capable of jerks and darts in any direction, watching as a round movie screen spins them along a wildly imaginative journey through the interior of an Egyptian pyramid.

Riders are left a little breathless, but the trip will be even more riveting, says Jeff Kleiser, when his company installs its full complement of creatures, combatants, and other special effects in the film.

The Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company, which Mr. Kleiser formed in partnership with Diana Walczak six years ago in Los Angeles, is a compact powerhouse of computer animation. It is also a little bit of Hollywood tucked in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. The firm's movie credits include "Tron" and Disney's "Flight of the Navigator." It also did the cosmic scenery for the PBS series, "The Astronomers."

The pyramid journey is one of several "rides" Kleiser-Walczak is producing with The Trumball Company Inc., its close neighbor in Lenox.

The head of that company, Doug Trumball, oversaw the special effects for "2001" and "Close Encounters," among other films. Their joint creations will be featured at Luxor Las Vegas, an entertainment and casino complex being built in Nevada by Circus Circus Enterprises.

The Luxor project brought the computer animators east a year ago for the collaboration with Trumball.

When Kleiser and Walczak started out, their work consisted primarily of digitally constructing three-dimensional objects - everything from the Eiffel Tower to a baseball glove - that other companies could then manipulate on film. They soon got involved, however, in animating their images themselves.

Among the company's trademarks is a line of animated actors called "Synthespians." These extraordinarily lifelike figures are capable of re-creating actual human movement, such as dance, which has been "captured" in digital, numerical form within the computer.

The human body of the "Synthespian" is taken from a clay model made by Ms. Walczak, an accomplished sculptor as well as a computer animator. The model is actually half a body covered with thousands of intersecting lines. In a room dominated by computer terminals, Kleiser explains how an electronic stylus is used to enter each intersection into the computer, thus reproducing the model in digital form. The digital model is duplicated to get the other half of the body, and the two halves are "welded" togeth er, as Kleiser puts it.

In a similar manner, a balsa-wood model of a spaceship can find its way into the computer - by creating numbers that describe the model. When those data are in the machine, "we can go to town," Kleiser says. Detail is everything. The surfaces of Kleiser-Walczak's spaceships even reflect the environments through which they hurtle.

For the pyramid ride and other attractions at Luxor Las Vegas, whole model environments - crafted by Trumball's artists - were photographed by computer-controlled cameras mounted on gantries. Kleiser-Walczak's animators take the digitized information produced by those cameras and "create computer- generated spaceships and other effects that get composited over those images," Kleiser says. Fire, smoke, confetti - all could be worked into a scene by what he calls the "revolution" of digital compositing.

That revolution has been advanced by supercomputers, two of which reside in Kleiser-Walczak's main computer room. Even with the speed and capacity of these machines, it can still take as much as an hour to calculate a complicated image - such as a swarm of spaceships flying through the contrail of a missile. The average for a frame, Kleiser says, is more like 10 minutes.

Circus Circus Enterprises bought one of the $1.5 million IBM machines used by Kleiser-Walczak, expecially for its Las Vegas project. The other, says Kleiser, was loaned by IBM. It's a good deal, he says. The computermaker can use the end product for promotion, and "it keeps our costs down."

But it is costly work even with the loan of a supercomputer. A piece of manufactured software used in computer animation can go for $35,000, Kleiser says. His company relies largely on a "phone-modem" network of programmers across the country. Kleiser-Walczak also develops much of its own software, including the programs used to produce animated versions of the human body.

In discussions of his work, Kleiser says, two questions always arise. First, why not make movies that are totally computer-generated, without human actors or live environments? Some companies are attempting this, Kleiser says, but "I tend to be more interested in mixing with live action." He foresees films where "Synthespian" characters will carry on conversations with live actors.

The second typical query is whether Kleiser-Walczak's technology couldn't reproduce John Wayne, James Dean, or other departed movie icons.

That idea strikes him as "stupid and immoral." "We should use the new technology to create new characters, not just steal past images," he says.

While computer technology is at the heart of his work, Kleiser stresses the artistry involved. In recruiting talent for their team of computer animators, he and Walczak look for "people with strong art backgrounds, not just computer nerds."

Future Kleiser-Walczak undertakings include a science-fiction adventure film called "Star Gate." Since that movie will also have tie-ins with ancient Egypt, the company's present and coming attractions are "dovetailing rather nicely," Kleiser says.

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