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Hollywood Folks, Meet 'Geometry People'

May 15, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

It's difficult to imagine a movie that exudes Hollywood more than "The Matrix Reloaded," the sci-fi action flick that opens in theaters today.

It's even more difficult to imagine people less in sync with Hollywood than seven Canadian engineers who usually spend their workdays studying the intricate curves of Michelangelo sculptures and measuring rare paintings' degree of decay.

But without them, "The Matrix Reloaded" would be devoid of some of its most stylish special effects, including the pivotal scene in which Keanu Reeves' Neo simultaneously fights 100 clones of his nemesis, Agent Smith.

"We're not your typical Hollywood company," said Helmut Kungl, president of XYZ-RGB, an Ottawa-based company founded two years ago to commercialize high-tech scanning techniques developed by the Canadian government. "The scientific community doesn't really 'do lunch.' We're having to get used to that."

They had better hurry up. After being tapped by Alameda-based ESC Entertainment Co. to create visual effects for what is expected to be the summer's biggest blockbuster, Kungl has been fielding calls from studio executives and visual effects shops asking for meetings with his team of Canadian engineers.

Hollywood has a long history of courting specialists from all manner of scholarly pursuits to add sizzle to its special effects. "The Matrix Reloaded" needed more than sizzle.

"We had to go to all these weird little companies and laboratories, because that's where all the out-there things are happening," said John Gaeta, the movie's visual effects supervisor and an ESC executive. "When you're aiming for the holy grail of our world -- to create a believable human -- you've got to take a chance with the strange and unusual."

Entrusting the movie's signature stunts to Hollywood neophytes was a major risk.

Warner Bros., the Burbank studio releasing the film, spent more than $300 million on "The Matrix Reloaded" and its successor, "The Matrix Revolutions," according to studio sources. Directors Andy and Larry Wachowski have said the effects alone cost a staggering $100 million.

Kungl declined to discuss how much the Canadians were paid for their work. Executives from Warner Bros., owned by AOL Time Warner Inc., declined to comment.

The relationship started in 2001 with a chance meeting at Siggraph, the annual computer graphics conference, in Los Angeles.

Kungl flew in from Ottawa to mingle with the academic community and drum up business for XYZ-RGB by demonstrating the ability of the company's specialized lasers to produce realistic three-dimensional replicas of objects.

"We were trying to figure out something that would be fun to show," Kungl recalled, and someone suggested a human head.

Rough by Hollywood standards, the head grabbed the attention of ESC executives, who had spent nearly two years scouring the academic and research communities for a new way to build a realistic, believable virtual actor.

In fact, ESC needed hundreds of them. In the movie's crucial face-off between Neo and the scores of Agent Smiths, wave after wave of the grimacing villains race past the camera, each sporting the face of actor Hugo Weaving. Some are so close, the wrinkles creasing their foreheads can be seen glimmering with sweat.

Nothing in the scene is real -- not the grimy buildings, not the rays of sunlight, and not the actors' faces.

Computer-generated actors have appeared in movies for decades, though usually in the form of cute critters or outlandish creatures. Virtual humans usually have trouble passing for the real thing, especially up close.

"Our brain is encoded to remember hundreds and hundreds of human faces," said Jerome Chen, a veteran visual effects supervisor with Sony Pictures Imageworks who served as lead supervisor on the "Stuart Little" films.

"All it takes is one tiny thing being off -- a flicker of the eyes slightly wrong or the skin not being translucent enough -- to kill the viewer's sense of belief that what he's seeing is real."

Visual effects artists usually wrap a two-dimensional photograph over a three-dimensional digital skeleton, then animate it for the big screen. That technique is fine for filling in a virtual crowd, but it doesn't yield enough detail for a convincing close-up.

Creating cyber-actors who are lifelike enough to hold their own in the spotlight wasn't Kungl's original goal.

For more than a decade, Kungl had worked with cutting-edge color imaging technologies. He was particularly enthralled with government research in a field known as auto-synchronized scanning: essentially a method of using lasers to triangulate the position of a particular object and produce a very high-resolution, three-dimensional image of its shape. The scanning system can nail down its exact location in 3-D space, and the resolution is so great that a single sheet of paper is 10 times as thick as a single data point.

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