While US animation houses such as Pixar and Pacific Data Images have secured places within the 3D feature-film industry, a few new names and faces from other countries are beginning to burst onto the animation scene. Not only are these international studios creating unique new styles to introduce to the animation world, but they are also breaking new ground in their respective countries.
- In Hong Kong, Centro Digital Pictures/Golden Harvest employed more than 500 elaborate special effects-including the use of Hong Kong's first digital stuntmen-to augment the live action of the martial-arts saga A Man Called Hero.
- In India, Pentafour has created a fantastical setting draped in the country's rich, vibrant colors for its all-motion-captured character animation in Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists.
- In France, Chaman Productions is tapping into the country's centuries-old artistic roots to produce Axis, what may turn out to be Europe's first full-length 3D animated feature, and the first to be produced entirely on a Win dows NT platform.
- In Japan, Studio Ghibli used digital technology to enhance, for the first time, the rich hand-painted watercolor appearance of revered animator Hayao Miy a zaki's artwork in the animated production Princess Mononoke.
Rather than simply imitate the successful CG formulas set by a handful of established US giants, these newcomers from around the world have dipped into their own cultural wells to break new ground in feature-film animation.
Karen Moltenbrey is an associate editor for Computer Graphics World.
Hong Kong is a contradiction in terms: although a bus tling modern city, its inhabitants still cherish the region's rich culture and ancient traditions. So it comes as no surprise that Centro Digital Pictures/Golden Harvest's action film A Man Called Hero-which blends futuristic and high-tech digital effects with traditional kung fu-has created such a stir in Hong Kong, breaking the country's opening-day box-office record. And, just as the movie's main character, Hero, finds his way to America, so will the film, which is currently being dubbed in English for release in the latter part of this year.
Adapted from Asia's all-time best-selling comic book of the same name, A Man Called Hero is a tale of intrigue, tragedy, and supernatural powers set in China, the US, and Japan during the early part of the 20th century. Discovering his family butch ered by thieves and opium traders, Hero, a promising martial arts student, avenges their deaths. Wanted by the law, Hero flees to America, where he becomes involved in power struggles within martial arts societies as he endures the challenges of life in the new world and once again meets up with the enemies of his past.
"We wanted to make a movie that adheres to the original Hong Kong style, which is kung fu, but also appeals to our audience, whose taste for effects has matured through exposure to effects-laden Hollywood films, video games, and commercials," says Frankie Chung, A Man Called Hero's visual-effects supervisor. Computer graphics technology, however, is still relatively new to Hong Kong's big screen. In fact, Centro/Golden Harvest's 1998 block buster StormRiders-which, like A Man Called Hero, is based on the original work of Ma Wing Shing-was the first Hong Kong-produced film to extensively use digital effects (see Computer Graphics World, Nov ember 1998, pg. 59).
|Computer graphics were used to augment the live-action martial arts powers of the characters in the feature film A Man Called Hero.|
"In Hong Kong, it is difficult to make futuristic types of movies because that is not the focus of our culture. It's not like in America, where they send people to the moon. In China, martial arts comic books are a big thing-you see businessmen reading them on the train," Chung explains. "The rea son why A Man Called Hero is so popular is because it uses digital technology within the context of Chinese culture."
To adhere to the realistically drawn comic-book action on which A Man Called Hero is based, Centro produced more than 500 digital effects shots to transform Asian locales into turn-of-the-century America and to dramatize the powerful skills of the leading characters as they control natural elements such as water, fire, and wind.
Of the film's total budget of $50 million HK ($6.4 million US), one-fifth was allocated toward creating the realistic digital effects, which were achieved using a variety of off-the-shelf software, such as LightWave, After Effects, 3D Studio Max, Maya, Softimage, PowerAnimator, and Dynamation, running on SGI (Mountain View, CA) and custom-built Intel-based workstations. "We use the best attributes of the various programs to achieve the desired effect," says Chung. For instance, to create the effects in a duel in the rain sequence between two of the characters, the group used Softimage and Maya's particle systems to create the detailed raindrops splashing on the ground.
|Digital technology was used most impressively in the film's climactic fight scene atop the Statue of Liberty. The sequence, which was 90% digital, contained an extensive 3D model of the landmark, built and textured in NewTek's LightWave. The live action w|
The most notable effects are contained in the climactic fight scene between Hero and his archenemy atop the Statue of Liberty. This complex sequence-of which only 10% was live-action photography-comprises more than 200 digital-effects shots that took a team of eight artists nine months to complete. "The statue contains about a half-million polygons and has a lot of high-resolution textures-about 1gb of data," Chung says.
Other digital effects were used to re-create the setting of New York City in the early 1900s. To replicate the New York harbor front, the group filmed an area in Shanghai that still contains buildings similar to those in New York at the turn of the century. Digital artists then added objects such as the Statue of Liberty in the harbor and even New York street signs. Using Quantel's (Newbury, UK) Domino system, the artists even changed the body shape and color of a modern-day Shanghai ferry to fit the earlier period.
"The effects in A Man Called Hero are different from the surreal, bright effects in StormRiders," says Chung. To ensure that the digital and composite artists could achieve photorealism for the film's effects so they would blend seamlessly into the live action, Chung had them study and analyze photos and photorealistic-style images and paintings from the 1900s for better understanding of the requisite lighting, depth, and texturing.
The digital effects were not limited to re-creating realistic settings. In fact, the Statue of Liberty sequence contains Hong Kong's first digital stuntmen: Hero and the five ninjas he encounters. To create the digital Hero, the modelers used a CyberWare (Monterey, CA) 3D scanner to capture 360 degrees of the head of Hong Kong Cantonese pop star Ekin Cheng. They then used Softimage to build a digital skeleton. Actual stuntmen performed the actions, which were captured using an optical motion-capture system from Motion Analysis (Santa Rosa, CA), then simulated to the digital actor. In another scene, motion capture was used in animating the movements of the five ninjas-each representing a basic element, such as fire, earth, water, metal, and wood-as they morphed into their respective elements.
While the digital effects in A Man Called Hero were complicated and intricate, Chung says the artists' experience with blue-screen shooting and compositing while doing commercial work enabled them to step up to this big-screen challenge. This experience, however, is new to Hong Kong's film actors. To give them a better understanding of the more complicated shots, Chung used LightWave and After Effects to produce a low-resolution digital storyboard to previsualize the scenes for the actors.
"Creating the Statue of Liberty scene was especially difficult for the actors because they had to fight while hoisted in the air against a blue screen, but they had to imagine they were on top of the monument," says Chung.
Just as foreign a concept is preproduction, because the ma jor ity of Hong Kong films are straight live-action productions shot in a hand-held documentary style during a two-week time frame. However, A Man Called Hero's director, Andrew Lau, learned how helpful storyboards and animatics are, especially for the actors in films combining digital effects with live action, when he directed StormRiders. "Before shooting, the director and everyone else involved in the live action would come over to look at the animatic so they could see what was supposed to be occurring," says Chung. Because of the intricacies of the shots, the live-action shooting for A Man Called Hero was likewise atypical for Hong Kong films, lasting about four months.
The time seems to have been well spent. Not only did A Man Called Hero become the region's top-grossing opening-day movie ever last July, surpassing Hollywood and local productions previously released within the territory, it also won Best Visual Effects honors at Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Festival in December, the Chinese equivalent of the Oscars for Chinese-language films.
Pentafour Software, a software developer and animation house based in India, along with in vestor Improvision, wove the rich, vi brant colors found in native tapestry into the fantastical settings of its 3D animated feature Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists. Contrasting with the jewel-like environments are the organic, realistic-looking characters, whose humanistic movements were achieved using motion-capture technology.
"The characters in Sinbad are extremely realistic and humanlike, so using motion capture seemed like the logical choice for capturing the fluid, natural way in which they walk," says Usha Gan esh ar ajah, producer and technical director of the film. "The look of the animation overall is different from what people are used to seeing," Ganesharajah maintains, "not only be cause of the breathtaking colors of scenery, sets, and lighting, but also the realistic motion."
|Artists at Pentafour used motion capture to animate all the characters in its film, providing realistic movements for the digital actors. |
Sinbad is an adventure tale of a prin cess who seeks help from the famed sailor Sinbad (voiced by Brendan Fraser) to break an evil spell placed on her father, the king, by a diabolical wizard (Leonard Nimoy) who is planning the royal ruler's demise. To save her father, the princess must sail to an unknown land bey ond the swirling seas, monsters of the deep, and denizens of forbidden worlds that lie past the Veil of Mists. There, she and Sinbad seek out the wizard's brother, ruler of a fantastical underwater world, who may hold the key to saving the king's life.
About 400 animators, programmers, and artists worked around the clock and around the world for 15 months to complete the animation and motion capture for the 84-minute production, which is now being released in US theaters. Of that time, only about two months were spent shooting the studio material as actors performed the motion, which was done at Pent afour's Los Angeles and Madras, In dia, facilities with motion-capture systems from Vicon Motion Systems (Ox ford, UK) and Motion Analysis (Santa Rosa, CA).
Although a new technology until about two years ago, motion capture has been used to animate some char acters in recent feature films. Sinbad, however, is the first full-length 3D animated film wherein all the character animation is motion captured rather than traditionally key framed.
|A team of artists from India and the US used a palette of brilliant colors to create mythical backgrounds and magical scenery for the 3D animated adventure Sinbad.|
"Many people have the impression that motion capture is easier to do than keyframing, and in general, it is. But motion capture still re quires extensive work and time," says Ganesharajah. "For Sinbad, we wanted hu man characters who moved like actual people, so for us, there was no other option."
The film's modeling and animation work was done at Pentafour's Madras headquarters using various off-the-shelf soft ware, in cluding Softimage and Maya running on SGI (Mountain View, CA) and Win dows NT workstations. The artists also used Pen ta media, Pentafour's proprietary software, and a host of its in-house plug-ins for many of the effects such as water bubbles, fire, smoke, and clouds. Image textures-from the realistic characters to the fantastical scenery-were achieved with pro prietary programs and Amazon 3D Paint.
"The realistic look of the characters in such a surreal setting differentiates this film from others," Ganesharajah says. "This is not just another 3D film."
When the newly founded Chaman Productions (Paris, France) began work on its all-3D feature film Axis more than two years ago, the company set out to create a production that would be a landmark not only for France, but quite possibly for the world of computer animation. Axis, a work in progress with a planned international release of 2001, will mark Chaman's first foray into the 3D feature-film market, introducing the animation world to the rich artistic heritage of France. On a broader scale, the production may become one of the first full-length 3D computer-animated films to be produced entirely on a Windows NT platform.
Denis Friedman, Axis producer, founded Chaman in 1997, with his sights squarely focused on producing digital content for video games and television series. But a meeting with two young authors (Chris Delaporte and Patrick Daher) redirected his vision to the big screen. Awed by the environment created for Axis by Delaporte and Daher, Friedman decided to augment the game with an all-3D animated feature, whose release will coincide with the rollout of the PC/PlayStation2 game.
"I was immediately attracted by the potency and rich content of the universe depicted in Axis," Friedman says. "In France, we are fortunate to have such a strong history that enables our artists to create exceptional visual content and images," he says. Friedman maintains that this "famous French touch," as he calls it, resulted in the distinctively rich and detailed look of the imagery found in Axis.
|Rather than imitate the look of 3D characters in current Hollywood films, Chaman Productions is trying to establish its own style for the feature film Axis, now in production.|
According to Friedman, this French touch has been hidden from the world of French feature-film animation, as the country's talented CG artists have been recruited by top US studios. "All we need, if we are to hold on to these talented artists in Europe, is the ability to produce our own all-CG feature films," he says. "I believe a film like Axis can pave the way for future feature-film projects that can continue to cultivate the French style in France." In fact, Chaman is hoping that Axis will become France's first full-length animated feature film.
Axis, an 85-minute science-fiction/fantasy film, is a story of Kaëna, a young girl who lives on a giant plant called the Axis, and of her courageous quest to save her tribe, whose main source of food and sustenance is dwindling. Kaëna's journey leads to a forbidden location on the Axis, where she encounters a host of unusual and sometimes hostile creatures. The heroine's adventure also depicts her journey from childhood to adulthood, as she defies authority, traditions, and beliefs in pursuit of her own truths and personal identity.
Targeted at teen audiences, Axis is a combination of realism and science fiction, more closely resembling a live-action adventure in terms of its intensity and close character relationships, says Friedman. "We wanted the characters to be realistic enough to project human feelings. And that resulted in some of the biggest challenges of the project-creating facial expressions and body movements that reflect those feelings and straddle that thin line between the realistic and the fantastical."
To reflect the multiple expressions of Kaëna, the artists modeled 40 different faces for the character in 3D Studio Max, each representing a different emotion. As for the other characters, the animators created at least 30 different faces for each to achieve realistic lip movement and facial expressions. Each face model has a mouth shape (phoneme) and a different expression that are then associated with one another and interpolated to match the dialog.
|Among the most striking images in Axis are the rich, detailed objects, backgrounds, and characters like the heroine Kaena, who was hand-textured using Painter. |
As for the movie's graphics style, Friedman is touting its high-resolution modeling-the film's largest monster contains more than 1 million polygons. "As French artists, we pay attention to the details; we try to go deep and focus on complexity," he says. As for texturing, the artists are creating the models by hand using Painter, rather than by using random computer-generated textures. "It's important that every image in the movie can be recognized as part of the Axis world. For example, if you take an image out of Star Wars, you know it came from that environment. We want to create our own stylistic reference."
To achieve that goal, more than 70 animators, modelers, and effects artists are working on the project. Most of them are located at Chaman's Paris studio, but a small group at the film's coproduction facility, Canadian Motion In ter na tional in Montreal, is performing a large chunk of the keyframe animation.
To produce the film, the Chaman animators are using Windows NT-based Intergraph TDZ 2000s running 3D Studio Max and various plug-ins. The high performance and low cost of the NT systems made them an especially attractive option, Fried man says. "I'd rather spend money on animators, not machines, because I believe they are more important to the success of a proj ect."
Friedman estimates Axis' production value at $26 million, one-third of which was allocated for the graphics and animation. A larger-than-usual portion of the remaining amount was spent on preproduction publicity. Because of Chaman's lack of experience in the animated motion-picture industry, Friedman felt the company had to take a special approach to promoting Axis. Instead of pitching the script to potential sponsors, the facility spent most of its preproduction budget on producing 5-minute pilots and trailers that it could pitch instead.
"We had to demonstrate our technical abilities to partners, coproducers, distributors, and international audiences, to prove that we could perform in a market currently dominated by major US film companies," says Fried man. As a result of its efforts, Chaman has se cured distribution channels in Canada, Japan, and France, and is still negotiating with companies for release in the US.
Coinciding with the film's debut-scheduled for year-end 2001-are plans for the release of the Axis video game for the PC, Dreamcast, and PlayStation2, although publisher negotiations are not yet final. A different development team at Chaman is creating the game content, which will contain many of the characters from the movie. An art book and comic-book series is also planned for simultaneous release with the film, all of which should go a long way toward introducing the world to Chaman's "French style" of computer animation.
|Animators used 3D Studio Max on Win dows NT systems to create the inhabitants of the Axis world, including members of this race, called Builder Worms.|
Film director Hayao Miyazaki has captivated Japanese moviegoers with unique animations that, with their viscerally naturalistic details and vibrant watercolors, can only be de scribed as works of art. His tech nique, honed over years of working as an animator, was unleashed in full during the 1980s after he launched Studio Ghib li. Since then, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have produced a string of box-office hits, including their most recent and expensive creation, Princess Mononoke.
Based loosely on Japanese folklore, Princess Mononoke is the Japanese anime-style animation of a war between the beast gods of the forest and an encroaching industrial civilization during a lawless period of 15th-century Japan. Unwittingly, Ashitaka, a young warrior from a forest-dwelling tribe, kills one of the forest gods who has taken the shape of a rampaging boar. As a result of the murder, a curse in the form of a growing, lethal scar begins to consume Ash i taka's body, forcing him to seek out the forest ravagers, whom he be lieves may be able to reverse his deadly fate. During that journey, he encounters Prin cess Mononoke, a woman reared in the forest by wolves, who has vowed to stop the industrialists and return the forestland to the gods and its rightful inhabitants.
When the film was released in Japan in mid-1997, it toppled Japanese box-office records, becoming one of only two movies (the other being Titanic) to break $150 million. An English-language version-voiced by actors including Minnie Driver, Claire Danes, Jada Pinkett, Gillian Anderson, and Billy Bob Thornton-was released in the US by Miramax Films last fall, introducing American audiences to the rich beauty of Miyazaki's creations.
Princess Mononoke-which took more than three years and $20 million to make-set a new standard for Miyazaki and his art. It marked the first time that his previously all-handcrafted work was supplemented by the use of computer graphics.
While the 135-minute film still contains more than 144,000 hand-drawn cels-every one of which was reviewed and in some cases retouched by Miyazaki himself-about one-tenth of the production includes computer-generated im age ry. Most of that was created with digital ink and paint only. The remaining portion of the CG work made use of texture mapping, 3D modeling and rendering, morphing, particle creation, and digital compositing.
|Though mostly handcrafted, Princess Mon on oke uses digital im agery to enhance the artistic painterly style of revered Japan ese artist/ director Hayao Miyazaki.|
The result, says Stephen Alpert, head of international distribution at Tokuma Shoten, Studio Ghib li's parent company, is movement with far more fluidity and realism than that of the typical anime film.
While making Princess Mononoke, the intention was to use computer graphics technology to augment the naturalistic, emotional style for which Miyazaki is known. In essence, the director wanted digital images that did not look like computer graphics.
The goal, according to Yo shi nori Sugano, CG director, was to make the computer graphics images conform to the level of realism found in traditional cel animation. Yet the studio also wanted to achieve the solidity and presence that is only possible with computer graphics.
For example, the technology proved invaluable for creating a sense of depth, space, and speed when Ash itaka and his mount chase the boar god. In this CG scene, the camera moved through the 3D background to simulate the wild, reckless ride from Ashitaka's (a 2D character) point of view. This enabled the animators to more easily track all the scene elements. The movie's 3D backgrounds, though, tended to be less detailed than those painted by the artists, since the textures lost some of their detail when they were mapped onto the 3D model of the terrain.
Another instance where 3D dominates a scene is during the attack of the boar god, as its snake-like tendrils devour all in its path. The technology was also used extensively to depict the surreal journeys of the semitransparent Night Walker god and the ensuing particle and lighting ef fects, which were created using the Particles tool set included within Soft image. Beyond that, 3D imagery was used subtly throughout the film to achieve morphing, particles, and special lighting effects.
Seamlessly integrating the 3D imagery into the cel animation while retaining its hand-drawn flavor proved particularly challenging. To ease that task, Studio Ghibli became one of the first users of Softimage's Toon Shader for Mental Ray, software developed by the Softimage Special Projects group that has since been incorporated into the Softimage 3D package. Toon Shader mimics the feel of thickly applied paint, sharp contour lines, and other characteristics of Miyazaki's 2D cel animation on the 3D images, created in Softimage 3D on SGI (Mountain View, CA) Indigo2 workstations.
|To maintain a consistent look throughout the film, the animators used Toon Shader to seamlessly blend the digital images with the hand-painted 2D cels.|
All the 3D elements, along with 2D cel images and backgrounds, were made separately and then digitally composited using Discreet's Flint. In fact, Princess Mononoke marks the first time that this technique was done in-house at Studio Ghibli.
Using digital technology did not detract from the film's artistic value or quality. One reason, perhaps, was because the director maintained personal control over every aspect, including the CGI. "In Japan, films take on the look and feel of an individual, rather than a committee or studio. And Miyazaki takes a very organic view of his animation," says Alpert. For instance, the director is conscious of wind, which is reflected in the subtle yet realistic way a character's hair moves or the grass sways.
An example of this attention to detail is found in the scene where the princess breaks into a fortress and runs across the roof as Ashitaka scampers behind her. In a split second, a tile on which he steps cracks and crumbles. "It's so much work to do that because the tile is part of the roof, which is part of the background, and moving such an intricate piece of art is a big deal-especially for such a small de tail," says Alpert. "Most directors wouldn't go to all the trouble, but that is Miyazaki's style. He feels it is important because it gives the impression that Ashitaka is bigger and stronger."
Similarly, Miyazaki's step into the digital domain was taken with tremendous care and balance, so as not to detract from his traditional yet popular style of art. And while that footstep was small, Princess Mononoke is proof that the step was indeed a successful one.
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