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Hollywood Folks, Meet ‘Geometry People’

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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Auto-synchronized scanning also allows scientists to figure out the exact color of any point on an object. The laser sends red, green and blue light waves toward an object and a sensor captures each of their reflections. The intensity of those reflections indicates the color of the object at the point where the lasers hit.

For instance, if the system were to scan the lips of Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays Neo’s girlfriend, Trinity, it would absorb more of the red laser than the blue or green ones. That would allow the system to figure out the exact shade of her lipstick.

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Arius 3D Inc., a Canadian company that specializes in computer imaging, originally licensed the laser technology from the Canadian government. Kungl worked at Arius 3D at the time, and he and a group of colleagues wanted to expand the capabilities of the laser scanning system. They spun off into XYZ-RGB. (The name plays off the scanner: XYZ represents a coordinate in space, and RGB is a reference to the red, green and blue lasers.)

To create the virtual characters for “The Matrix Reloaded,” the XYZ-RGB team used plaster molds of the hands and faces of the four principal actors, covering every bit of skin that would be exposed to the camera. For Laurence Fishburne, the bald actor who plays Neo’s mentor Morpheus, the facial mold encompassed his entire head.

XYZ-RGB’s scientists scanned the molds with its custom laser. Each tiny wrinkle and minuscule scar was mapped and recorded in a computer. The result: massive computer files that gave the digital artists at ESC Entertainment a foundation to build on.

Before Kungl’s team put the finishing touches on virtual Neo, word of the technology spread to Hollywood. For the last few weeks, the phones at XYZ-RGB have been ringing constantly, much to Kungl’s amusement. “Mostly, we’re all geometry people,” he said, “not studio folks.”

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When Canadian National Research Council officials agreed to spend nearly 18 years and about $14 million on the laser research, they envisioned more scientific applications, said George V. Forester, a business development officer for the Institute for Information Technology at the NRC.

“We imagined NASA using this for the advancement of science, not someone building a better Keanu Reeves,” he said. “Who knew?”


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