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Dave Wilson

Generating a Realistic Fantasy World

August 16, 2001|Dave Wilson | Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist

"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," a recently released film created entirely on computers, is a staggering technical achievement. For a few moments during this 90-minute movie, the animation on the big screen is utterly indistinguishable from live action.

But the $140-million film is tanking at the box office, largely a victim of a mediocre story line and images that only rarely match what audiences can see in a traditional movie.

Despite that disappointing showing, this won't be the last film that relies mostly on computer-generated scenes to tell the tale. Hollywood is practically salivating at the thought of

releasing computer-generated films that look as though they were shot on location.

Yet the quest for photo-realistic computer graphics--essentially animation that precisely mirrors the real thing--isn't confined to movies. Such research is a driving force behind many of today's technological innovations. The concept of creating perfect computer graphics is a major focus of a conference in Los Angeles this week called Siggraph.

"Final Fantasy" was an interesting experiment, but it has pulled in less than $35 million in four weeks and probably will disappear from theaters long before it cracks $40 million. It's fair to wonder whether all the fuss about photo-realistic graphics in movies makes a lot of sense. Put another way, would "Snow White" have been a better movie if Walt Disney and company had been able to draw cartoons so perfectly that they looked real?

"I don't think making the graphics more realistic would improve on 'Snow White,' " said Mk Haley, associate technical specialist for Walt Disney Imagineering R&D, who is chairing the emerging technology venue at Siggraph. "But that's not what creating photo-realistic graphics is for."

Haley said Hollywood isn't alone in shelling out big bucks for research into improved computer graphics. The military, for instance, needs to make better simulators so troops can practice using fancy new weapons without firing them at a million dollars a pop. Other creative uses include a doctor practicing surgery on an electronic patient or a student driver getting comfortable on the highway without smashing the family Buick.

But consumers most probably will see these advances first in movies. Hollywood isn't planning to replace all flesh-and-blood actors with digitized thespians. Instead, studios are more interested in such things as digitally creating and storing sets.

"If you need a specialized set in New York, for example, the cost of storage is far more than the cost of just building it," Haley said. "Building a digital set has a bigger upfront cost, but if you amortize that over time, it's very effective."

And much of the interest lies in being able to seamlessly drop artificially generated objects or characters into live-action movies, said Patty Blau, senior vice president of production at Industrial Light & Magic. ILM did the digital effects for the last "Star Wars" movie, which included animated alien Jar Jar Binks.

"Photo-realism is absolutely required if you're going to create that world of fantasy that the film wants to create," she said. "But in terms of reproducing reality, I don't see that as the end goal. Digital filmmaking is its own art form and needs to find its own voice. We've only touched the tip of the iceberg so far."

OK, but why can't we create animated graphics that look realistic? We do all right on spaceships and such, but nobody is going to mistake an animated cow for the real thing. What makes this so hard?

"If we knew, we'd fix it," said Steve Marshner, a researcher in the Stanford University computer graphics lab who's presenting a paper at Siggraph on how to better simulate reality. "We can reproduce how the light bounces off man-made objects pretty well, and that's one of the reasons all the toys in 'Toy Story' looked so great. But we still have a lot of problems simulating biological materials, like plants or skin."

We've still got a long way to go, and the endgame keeps changing as audiences grow more sophisticated. "King Kong" looked utterly realistic when it was first released in 1933, but now the great ape is clearly a puppet to our jaded eyes.

Cinema began Dec. 28, 1895, when the Lumiere brothers held the first commercial movie screening at Grand Cafe in Paris. Audience members were so terrified by the vision of a locomotive bearing down on them that, legend has it, some fled screaming into the street.

Today, few of us are going to mistake a movie image for the real thing; fewer still can't spot the computer-generated images. My guess is it's going to be a long time before anybody can create a computer character we'd mistake for a flesh-and-blood actor.

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