O.K., so it's not Shakespeare. It's not even Shakespeare in Love. But whatever. Cats & Dogs is one of the most amazing feats in a summer that will be remembered for its computer-generated imagery in everything from live-action drama to animated comedy. Never before have so many movies owed so much to computer geeks. Take, for example, Shrek, its magical kingdom rendered entirely on computers with a richness, luminosity and texture that wouldn't have been possible two years ago, when Disney and Pixar sounded a death knell for antiquated hand-drawn cartoons with Toy Story 2. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, opening in July, stars a cast of disconcertingly realistic CGI humans. In Steven Spielberg's A.I., opening this week, a teddy bear comes to life, and Haley Joel Osment communes with eerie, translucent aliens. As a robot, Osment never blinks because of his Stanislavskian discipline and because the special-effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) removed more than a dozen blinks from his scenes.
"This summer, we've seen a tremendous expansion of imagination," says producer Chris Lee, who began developing software to turn the video game Final Fantasy into a movie four years ago. "We have a couple of generations now that have grown up with gaming. Kids are used to living in a 360 degree digital universe, and they don't necessarily accept a flat background."
In an effort to keep topping itself, Hollywood is taking time-tested crowd pleasersnamely, talking animalsfurther and further into the digital realm. Dr. Dolittle 2, in which Eddie Murphy talks to computerized critters, will still be in theaters when Cats & Dogs, a whiz-bang homage to Chuck Jones and James Bond, enters the fray. "We have to deliver images that audiences have never seen before," says Cats & Dogs' director Lawrence Guterman. "It has to be funnyotherwise there's no moviebut at the same time you have to deliver something new." That effort has gone on for two years, since Guterman and visual-effects supervisor Ed Jones went to work with animal trainers, puppeteers and three special-effects houses, including Rhythm & Hues, which made a pig talk in the Babe movies through a process called face replacement. That means putting a digital face on footage of a real animal and moving its mouth with a computer.
Babe was released in 1995. By now its effects seem as primitive as a scratchy Al Jolson sound track. "Computer horsepower has gotten better, and there are some really sharp guys writing software," says Dennis Muren, senior visual effects supervisor at ILM. His team has kept dinosaurs steadily evolving since the first Jurassic Park in 1993; research for the first two movies has made more monsters possible for the upcoming Jurassic Park III. Cats & Dogs' animators paid their dues on Babe but honed their craft on a talking bulldog for last year's Little Nicky.
Today, the stars of Cats & Dogs not only speak, they can wink, frown and smirk in full-bodied performances. On the set, a trainer gets a real beagle to jump through the air. An animatronic stand-in takes the fall. The face-replacement process gives the pup a surprised expression, and the shots are digitally sewn together. What's more, the animals look fabulous. For Mr. Tinkles, "we had to make 14 million 3-D hairs hold form and maintain volume," says Rhythm & Hues' Bill Westenhofer.
After this summer, the Screen Actors Guild may worry that its members are no longer needed in Hollywood. But they shouldn't worrynot yet anyway. Flesh-and-blood thespian Sean Hayes blesses Mr. Tinklesand the audiencewith a hilarious effete voice and wicked ad libs, and the movie is better for it. Another promising sign for humans: in Planet of the Apes, opening next month, director Tim Burton creates talking animals the old-fashioned wayby putting actors in monkey suits. As Stanley Kubrick realized more than three decades ago, computers have their place, but so does primitivism, even in 2001.