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It Was No Picnic for the Artists

Creating the characters for 'Antz' was a complex computer animation project, but it was just a means to a bigger end.

October 04, 1998|David Chute | David Chute is an occasional contributor to Calendar

'We are half thinking," says Rex Grignon, one of two supervising animators on the new DreamWorks SKG release "Antz," "that it would be wonderful if one of our characters got nominated for an acting award. Because, really, we are measuring ourselves against live action rather than conventional animation."

This is (if you'll pardon the expression) a large statement. Ants are, after all, among the tiniest and the least respected creatures on God's Earth. We poison them, we squish them underfoot, we incinerate them with malignant magnifying glasses, without giving the wholesale slaughter a second thought. Insect holocausts occur daily behind the refrigerators of America.

But if all goes according to plan, the anthropomorphic comedy stars of "Antz," which opened Friday, will fulfill the outsized hopes that are being pinned on them. (A second computer-generated imaging, or CGI, insect flick, Pixar and Disney's "A Bug's Life," opens in December, and the rivalry is heating up.)

With an acknowledged nod to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," "Antz" is the up-from-under-the-rock story of the only worker in the teeming colony who doesn't want to go along with the crowd, who insists he is fed up with "this whole gung-ho super-organism thing. . . . When you're the middle child in a family of 5 million," the uppity ant-tagonist, known simply as Z, complains to his ant-shrink, "you don't get a lot of attention. . . . [My father] flew away when I was just a larva."

If the characterization and the humor seem a tad familiar, that's partly by design. Z is portrayed vocally by Woody Allen, and the dialogue was tailored to his persona. "The first time we took the script to New York to show it to Woody," producer Patty Wooten says, "he was amazed at how much it sounded like him. He said, 'Somebody knows me very well.' "

A lot of people know him very well, which is just what the filmmakers are banking on. Although the aim of "Antz" is partly to push the craft of animation in a new direction, they recognize the need to ease the audience's transition into this strange realm.

There's a perfect example in the movie's opening sequence, which was also the first glimpse offered to the public, when it was shown last year as a teaser trailer. Allen's inimitable vocal stylings seem to pull us right down through the topsoil into the CGI dimension. With his help, we quickly accept these patterns of pixels, these configurations of coordinates in cyberspace, as living, emoting individuals.

"Somebody does need to wake up the Disney formula a little bit," says "Antz" co-director Tim Johnson. "Jeffrey [Katzenberg, chief of DreamWorks Animation] was the one who perfected the formula at Disney. Now he sees that animation has grown in 15 years. What has it grown into? Let's find out."

The animation in "Antz" is, not surprisingly, way beyond cool in its subtlety and precision. (DreamWorks says the film's budget is $42 million.) The crowd scenes, which depict up to 80,000 differentiated individuals at once, are almost disorienting: all that roiling detailreceding to the horizon. And there are more than 500 of these shots--many more than the filmmakers anticipated, before the custom-made crowd simulation software flexed its digital muscles.

Like all the other proprietary software systems used to create "Antz," the crowd simulator was developed at the Silicon Valley headquarters of Pacific Data Images (PDI), which is co-producing the film with DreamWorks. Since its founding in 1980 by "Antz" executive producer Carl Rosendahl and others, PDI has been at the leading edge of developments in whiz-bang computer graphics. One of the first outfits to make a splash with "morphing" effects--in the Michael Jackson rock video "Black or White" and in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," both in 1991--PDI also created a digital stunt double for the Caped Crusader in "Batman Forever" (1995) and "Batman and Robin" (1997), an achievement that earned the high compliment of going unnoticed by almost everyone who saw those films.

The headquarters building of PDI, which occupies most of a city block within walking distance of downtown Palo Alto, looks distinctly more buttoned-down than, say, the cluttered hacker's haven't of Industrial Light & Magic, up the coast in San Raphael. PDI looks more like a corporate cubicle cluster out of "Dilbert"--although it's a safe bet that very few insurance offices or law firms are festooned with this many pop culture trinkets, from Japanese robots and "Star Wars" action figures to space cruisers dangling from the light fixtures.

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