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New Panther Poised at Cutting Edge of Animation : Hollywood: Producing titles for the upcoming Pink Panther film was a coup for Desert Music Pictures, known for music videos and Giorgio commercials.


When Blake Edwards agreed to pay Desert Music Pictures more than $1 million to produce the opening credits for the first Pink Panther movie in more than a decade, he made it clear he wanted more than just titles: the animation sequence had to usher his famed film series into the modern age.

Theatergoers should notice the difference when MGM's "Son of Pink Panther" opens next week. In Desert Music's hands, the analog cartoons of old have been replaced by a sophisticated sequence combining live action, animation and computer graphics.

The "Panther" movie represents a big breakthrough for Desert Music, which is best known for its work on music videos and Giorgio perfume commercials. In winning a contract coveted by many well-established digital effects firms--it is believed to be the most money ever spent on a title sequence--Desert Music capitalized on the increasing accessibility of technology.

"The technology has reached a point where a company like ours can start competing," says Friend Wells, co-founder of Desert Music. "We don't have millions of dollars of expensive machines . . . and we don't have 25 years of relationships in the business, but we were able to set up a system of vendors and make the technology work for us."

They did have a connection. Edwards' son Geoffrey, who directed the title sequence, was on leave from his video directing job at Desert Music when he alerted them to the project and suggested that they come up with a demo. The firm ultimately won out in a bidding war that included digital effects heavyweight Industrial Light and Magic.

The four-minute sequence takes place on a film scoring stage, and stars Bobby McFerrin, Henry Mancini, and a new cartoon character, Gambrelli, in addition to the familiar pink beast. In the most technically complex scene, Mancini hands the baton to the Pink Panther, who conducts five Bobby McFerrins singing the theme.

In digital optical jargon, the scene has eight "layers" of live action, graphics and animation, each of which was created separately, transferred to digital format, and fed into a sophisticated computer to be combined and put on film. Audiences may be reminded of "Roger Rabbit," which also merged live action with animation, but the 1988 film used traditional optical techniques to achieve its effects, which Wells and his partner Jeffrey Tinnell say would have taken longer and cost more.

To be sure, there were glitches. The 12-second multi-McFerrin scene took Sidley, Wright & Associate's computer workstations two full days to process--and 12 times to get it right. Once the Panther's eyes came out the wrong color. Another time, he was missing a crucial whisker. Then there was the screening where half of McFerrin's body had vanished into cyberspace. "One of the things we learned is there really is a ghost in the machine," says Tinnell.

The technology is moving fast: Wells and Tinnell say they could shave at least a month off the time it took to make the sequence and do it for about 25% less the cost with computer systems that have come on line in the last several months.

"If we had to do it all over again now, we'd probably do it completely differently," Tinnell says. They may also try to make more money off their next project. "But now we have this to show around, and let's face it, people have to take you more seriously when you show them this than when you show them Giorgio commercials."

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