Hollywood sings a new kind of 'toon

There's only one type of film that has opening-weekend clout to rival that of Will Smith: the computer-generated animated feature film.

"Robots," a whimsical tale about a young automaton who aspires to be an inventor like his dad, is likely to post impressive numbers on the scoreboard of Fox Studios this weekend. It's the latest film in a hugely popular genre that last year produced megahits such as "The Incredibles" ($600 million worldwide to date) and "Shrek 2" (which is the third-biggest film of all time).

Hollywood has taken note. Virtually all the major studios now have an inhouse facility producing computer-generated (CG) feature films, from Sony's Imageworks to Fox's Blue Sky Studios, which created "Robots." Not surprisingly, the film-release calender for 2005 is filling up with CG films. Dreamworks has "Madagascar," a tale of zoo animals surviving in the wild, due out Memorial Day weekend. "Chicken Little," the first film to hatch from Disney's new CG studios, arrives in November.

But some observers wonder how long Hollywood can sustain the CG-film gold rush. The early computer-animated films were buoyed as much by their striking aesthetics as their strong stories. Several years on, the novelty of the genre threatens to wear off as CG animated films become more commonplace.

The competition may force studios to come up with stronger storylines to lure audiences, but here again lie potential difficulties. Because computer technology hasn't yet been able to create realistic-looking humans, screenwriters have been limited to concentrating on stories about fish, ogres, monsters, toys, and inanimate objects that can be anthropomorphized.

"What's happened is that CG films have been so successful that there's a great public appetite for it," says artist Peter Weishar, author of "CGI: The Art of the 3D Computer-Generated Image." "The challenge right now is to live up to the hype."

Pixar kicked off the current craze for CG animation back in 1995 with the first fully animated major feature film, "Toy Story." Prior to that, critics and filmmakers alike had dismissed computer animation as too mechanical and limited in storytelling expressiveness. To date, many of those problems have been overcome by creative uses of computer animation.

Chris Wedge, the creator of "Robots," admits that his team of animators faced their own set of challenges in depicting the inner emotions of the characters. "It's extremely difficult to make metal look alive," says Mr. Wedge. "To get more emotion out of the characters without breaking the tension of believability was what we had to work out."

Blue Sky's animators tried to create facial expressions by adding quirky eyebrows and more flexible mouths to the robots. The studio, which also made 2002's "Ice Age," had already pioneered a technology to animate the way light falls on objects. In the real world, light is always coming from more than a single source, so re-creating shadow and depth in an animated film is extremely complicated. "We have developed the software to surround objects with multiple light sources, and this makes them look more believable," says Wedge, who adds that they have refined the techniques further in "Robots."

Despite the enormous progress made in bringing computerized worlds to life, the CG feature film still faces some vexing technical hurdles, say animators. "It's always dangerous when you try to do human simulations," says Rolf Herken, an artist at Mental Images, a CG studio. "The industry is really not quite there yet," he adds.

As evidence, he points to the recent "Polar Express." While the film has not been a financial failure, it was drubbed by the critics for the ghoulish, inhuman facial expressions of the people, most of whom were lifted from motion-capture technology used on real-life actor Tom Hanks. An earlier effort, "Final Fantasy," was a similar failure. "The people were all carrying little Hitler-esque mustaches under their noses which was a shadow leftover from scanning their faces in the studio," he says. "Once the audience discovers that ... it turns the movie into a comedy."

Human powers of observation are the biggest reason facial details are so difficult to master, says Lance Ulanoff, editor of the online edition of PC magazine. It's one thing to re-create objects that humans have never seen, such as dinosaurs or even familiar animals such as bears or squirrels. But, he adds, the human face is so familiar that viewers are unforgiving in their expectations of on-screen realism. "People are really adept at picking up anomalies in facial expressions, while they'll accept just about anything for a dinosaur," he adds with a laugh.

For now, the alternative seems to be to create deliberately cartoonish-looking humans like those in "The Incredibles." It's possible, though, that technological innovations will bring ever more realistic-looking human figures to the screen. Films such as "Spider-man," "The Matrix," "Lord of the Rings," "Blade," and the recent "Star Wars" prequels have all employed computer-generated characters. In many cases, the CG figures are used instead of stuntmen.

"If you're a director, you're not going to take the real Wesley Snipes and throw him up in the air over a moving motorcycle," says Mr. Weishar. "You're going to use the computer and do it the safe way."

That practical application may spur improvements in computer animation. "The technology and the software keeps leapfrogging," says Weishar. "It gets more sophisticated each year."

Cinema-quality cel animation goes by the boards

The rise of CG animation has overshadowed traditional hand-drawn cel animation. Nothing underlines that point like Walt Disney Studios' decision to shutter its cel-animation studios in Florida two years ago. "When you're talking about [feature] animation these days, there is no other industry than the CG films," says film critic Ray Greene.

While lower-quality cel animation lives on in TV cartoons and direct-to-video products, traditional cel animation artists bemoan the marginalizing of a 20th-century artform at the cinema. "Due to the success of Pixar, people assume that style is what will succeed," says Lee Crowe, a cel animator. "That's a shame," she says, adding that once you dismantle animation facilities and let the artists go, the artform won't come back easily.

But Rolf Herken, a designer at mental images CG studio, says the industry has a final but important hurdle to cross - turning the computer technology into a truly intuitive tool, responsive to an artist's hand. That's where the traditional and cutting edge will merge. Once that occurs, the technology will have truly matured into an artistic tool rather than a piece of technology. "It will create a paradigm shift," says Mr. Herken.

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