Building a better human

Jul 11, 2001 at 12:00 am

For movies, 2001 has turned out to be a digital summer. Computerized special effects are de rigueur in big-budget action fare, providing the visual thrills in phantasmagoric science fiction (The Mummy Returns) and historical epics (Pearl Harbor) alike. But it’s two surprise hits which point the way to Hollywood’s digital future: The spunky, low-budget Spy Kids is an example of the creative use of highly developed home computer software, while the fractured fairy tale, Shrek, demonstrates the viability of 3-D animation beyond mere novelty status.

What Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within shares with these films is technical and aesthetic innovation fused with a defiant attitude. During interviews and a series of software demonstrations in Los Angeles, the team behind The Spirits Within elaborated on how they pushed existing computer technology to new levels in pursuit of animation’s holy grail: photo-realistic human characters.

The film’s Japanese co-directors, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara, acknowledge they haven’t reached that summit yet. For instance, they point out that human beings sweat, a process they couldn’t replicate with their “hyper real” characters.

“It’s minor details that make realism,” their translator explains, “so they both feel that it’s only a third of the way there.”

But Sakaguchi, the 38-year-old creative mastermind of this project, is accustomed to diving headfirst into the untested waters of new technology. In 1987, he created the “Final Fantasy” video game, and each successive version (the ninth was released last November) has pushed the envelope of both computer graphics and interactive storytelling.

“As we all know, the video game has really become part of pop culture,” says producer Jun Aida, “so when you have that kind of dominating influence — and with the advancement of the platform like PlayStation 2, where the animation is becoming more and more real — I think that would have a great deal of influence on films [like this summer’s Tomb Raider] and animated features.”

“Video game movies have sort of come of age,” adds producer Chris Lee. “Traditionally, they’ve been very low-budget affairs. This is the first movie directed by the creator of the game in the medium of the game.

“The larger story isn’t so much that games are being translated to films,” continues Lee, “but how much games have affected films. The Matrix to me is a game: You’re going in and out of different realities; it’s a nonlinear structure; you have to learn to fight before you get to the next level; you’re trying to become The One, which to me is equivalent to getting the best score. Something like Run Lola Run has a reset button built into it. So kids are growing up in a world of 360-degree environments, and Hollywood movies — particularly this kind of big summer event — are changing because of it.”

Four years ago, the success of the “Final Fantasy” games and the search for a new challenge led Sakaguchi to build a $45 million studio for his company, Square Pictures, in Honolulu, Hawaii (The Spirits Within is the first feature produced there). Strategically located between Japan and California — two world centers for animation and computer technology — Square attracted a team of animators who were looking to break new ground.

Among them are Andy Jones, whose background is in both traditional animation and live-action special effects. After working on Godzilla (whose computer graphics were seen as old hat), Jones was ready to tackle something new as lead animator on a film many of his peers didn’t believe could possibly achieve its lofty goal.

“It was really ambitious for Sakaguchi-san to take this on,” he explains, “and for every artist who worked on it — including myself — I think it was a pretty ambitious move on our parts to commit to it. Three years ago, when I first got hired, he’s telling me what he wanted to do, and I thought, ‘he’s crazy.’ But part of me was up to the challenge.”

But now that computer graphics (CG) have evolved to the point where live actors interact with imaginary dinosaurs and explosions can be created using a keyboard instead of combustibles, why should animators even attempt to create realistic human characters? Jones explains that Sakaguchi wanted to develop not just a new animation style, but a different kind of world for movie audiences to immerse themselves in.

“I feel that if we did shoot humans,” says Jones, “then put them in these digital backgrounds, you would have constantly been distracted. When you see live actors interact with CG characters now, the believability for me is lacking quite a bit. They just don’t feel like they’re in the same environment. But because we made the humans CG, everything blended, and you’re not pulled out of the story.”

Jones marvels at the perception that computer animation — an immensely complex process where every variable must be considered and continually recalculated — is somehow easier than drawing by hand.

“A lot of people have a misconception,” he says, “that there’s an ‘animate’ button: You just hit that and everything comes to life. The computer’s essentially a sophisticated paint brush. It’s a tool artists use to generate the images.”

“Computers may be diligent,” adds visual effects supervisor Remo Balcells, “but they’re not very smart.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]