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Programming a hunt for computer-animated hits

Special to The Times

Here we go again.

The latest rush into animation went into high gear in May when George Lucas announced the creation of Lucasfilm Animation to produce computer-animated features. Other studios are jumping in as well: Sony has a slate of six computer graphics, or CG, films in development. Pixar is completing “The Incredibles” and “Cars”; DreamWorks is making “Shrek 2" and “Sharkslayer” in CG. Fox has announced a 2005 release for “Robots,” the second CG feature from Blue Sky. A sequel to “Ice Age” is in the works, as is a second adventure for “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.”

For “Chicken Little,” Disney is rebuilding the digital facility it dismantled after “Dinosaur,” and will release Vanguard’s “Valiant” in 2005. And according to a recent article in Newsweek, Disney chief Michael Eisner “wants to extend the lives of Disney’s older characters by reanimating some classics for a new look. Imagine a 3-D Peter Pan soaring over a digitized London.”

The main impetus behind this boom in CG production is obvious: Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” which has already taken in close to $200 million. This follows such other CG animated successes as “Shrek” ($268 million), “Monsters, Inc.” ($256 million), “Toy Story 2" ($246 million) and “Ice Age” ($176 million). The Pixar features alone have earned more than $1.73 billion worldwide. Sales of videos and related merchandise have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue.

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Much of the rush into production is predicated on the assumption that recent CG features have been successful not because they’re good, but because they’re done in CG. The acknowledged king of CG, Pixar chief John Lasseter, dismisses that notion: “For me, it’s the story that holds the audience, it’s not the technology, it’s not the look of the film. We concentrate -- and we always have -- on the story.” In many ways, the situation parallels the early ‘90s, when Disney’s drawn features “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were printing money and everybody wanted a piece of the action. Other studios tried to set up animation facilities, but couldn’t find enough A-level animators and story artists to staff them.

The result was a string of dismal money losers. In 1992, Disney’s “Aladdin” grossed a then-record $215 million; the second most successful animated feature that year was “Fern Gully: The Last Rain Forest” at $24.6 million, followed by “Rock-A-Doodle” ($11.6 million); at the bottom was “Freddie as F.R.0.7" ($1.1 million). The highest-grossing animated feature of 1993 was “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story,” which took in a paltry $8.6 million, despite extensive advertising, merchandising and fast-food tie-ins. Additional disasters followed, including “The Swan Princess” (1994), “Quest for Camelot” (1998), “The King and I” (1999) and “Titan A.E.” (2000).

Despite this dubious track record, studio management seems intent on doing the same thing again, only digitally this time. The people joining the rush forget (or tactfully ignore) the CG bomb “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” Based on a popular video game, the film reportedly cost between $130 million and $200 million, but earned only $32.1 million.

David Kirschner, who produced the critically well-received “Cats Don’t Dance” for Warner Bros. in 1997, notes, “Every time an animated film does well, studios jump in, thinking they can be part of the ‘animation business.’ You have to have a good script, good storyboards and a talented crew. And the marketing of these films is very, very important. DreamWorks did a brilliant job of making ‘Chicken Run’ an event.”

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Another often-stated reason for the CG boom is that kids won’t watch 2-D anymore. Industry executives apparently take this doctrine on faith, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some of the most popular kids’ TV shows in the country are 2-D imports from Japan: “Dragon Ball Z,” “Beyblade” and “Yu-Gi-Oh.” And kids express their affection for these shows with their allowances. There are “Dragon Ball” characters on their skateboards and T-shirts. Hasbro has sold more than 5 million basic “Beyblade” toys, and sales of “Yu-Gi-Oh"-related merchandise are expected to top $1 billion this year.

Talent proves elusive

Studio heads seem to assume that if they set up enough computers in a vacant warehouse, they can make successful CG features. But someone who can run software isn’t necessarily an animator.

John Hughes, president of Rhythm & Hues which won an Oscar for the special effects in “Babe,” says, “Right now, we’re gearing up for ‘Scooby II’ and ‘Garfield,’ and our core staff is going to have to go from about 300 to about 525 by fall. We’re having a very hard time finding talented people. There simply aren’t enough good animators to do all these movies. There also aren’t enough good lighters to make them all look good; good lighters are just as hard to find as good animators.” (Lighters develop the surface look and apply light to integrate the CG images into the backgrounds or live-action plates.)

The Pixar artists spent years making short films, polishing their techniques, and learning the strengths and weaknesses of computer animation before they attempted a feature. During the ‘30s, Walt Disney used the “Silly Symphonies” to train artists and experiment with new techniques. Beginning with “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986), the younger generation of Disney animators worked, studied and grew until it was ready to make the string of hits that began with “The Little Mermaid” (1989).

Most of the CG animators working in the film industry today are effects artists. They create explosions, floods, monsters, etc. that can be integrated with footage of live actors. But feature animation requires the artists to create performances with characters that move the audience. The key is believability rather than realism.

“In addition to matching the lighting and texture of the live-action subject, getting an effect to work in a film requires the incorporation of motion blur, film grain, lens flares, camera jars and other artifacts of filmmaking,” explains Scott Johnston, artistic coordinator on this fall’s “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” “These visual elements make an effect ‘feel’ right to the audience. In live action, the more realistic something appears, the more believable it is. But unrealistic animation can be completely believable when created by a talented artist.”

Recent films reveal that few effects animators can create the kind of performance that makes a character become a thinking, feeling personality an audience can care about. For example, the waxworks humans in “Final Fantasy” never come to life the way Woody, Sully, Donkey and Dory do in “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Shrek” and “Finding Nemo,” respectively. Breathing life into a character isn’t easy, whether it’s done with drawings or pixels.

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Some traditional animators have been taking computer classes, becoming “ambidextrous.” The knowledge of movement, anatomy, expression, timing and acting they bring to their new tools often results in more vivid personalities. But artists who love to draw may not be happy working at a terminal. An ex-Disney animator who spoke on the condition of anonymity sums up their feelings: “I can do CG. I can do it well and quickly, and I think I can improve the acting and the quality of the animation in these films. But it’s a mechanical process: I don’t feel invested in it, the way I do in my drawings.”

Animation professionals wonder which studios and reputations will be left standing after this wave of CG features has come and gone. History suggests that a few will be successful, but that many will not. Animators also speculate that after a stream of CG, a good traditional film will score a hit and precipitate a stampede back to drawn animation.


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