Cinema: A Painstaking Fantasy

A digital filmmaker moves up the evolutionary ladder from dinos and toys to real human beings

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There's a little something of Bob Hope in Dr. Sid. Specifically, it's the liver spots on Sid's cueball forehead and the thick blue vein down the side of his temple. The tufts of white hair around the back were inspired by photos of Sean Connery, among many others, while the sixtysomething scientist's aged pores and wrinkles have been drawn from thousands of images of lesser-known maturing gentlemen. Donald Sutherland got away lightly; all he had to provide was Sid's voice.

Sid is an animated composite, a digital cartoon. Just keep telling yourself that when you stare into his disturbing photorealistic visage at the multiplex next summer. And he's only one of a complete cast of computer-generated actors in Final Fantasy, a Columbia Pictures feature with a rumored budget of $70 million, based loosely on the multimillion-selling series of PlayStation games of the same title. A science-fiction epic that deals with earth's response to alien invasion in 2065, Fantasy looks to be the first movie that does for humans what Steven Spielberg did for dinosaurs and Pixar did for toys and bugs: build living, breathing replicas out of electrons.

That's no small proposition. Lifelike skin and hair are notoriously tough to manage on computers; even Spielberg once said he'd never attempt to create CG humans. Now about 200 animators and artists, some of whom have been at it for more than two years, are laboring in near secrecy under creator and director Hironobu Sakaguchi. Veterans of Titanic and The Matrix have been drafted alongside video-game gurus from Japan.

Walk through Fantasy's four floors of office space in downtown Honolulu--a city chosen for its almost equidistance between Hollywood and Tokyo--and you'll see sleep-deprived animators getting strands of our heroine Aki's hair to waft just so, or watching endless video loops of voice talents James Woods, Alec Baldwin, Ming-Na and Ving Rhames trying to make their characters' lips move in exactly the same way.

No detail is too small to be left to the imagination; no time-consuming trick is spared. On a sound stage outside the city, actors wearing Ping-Pong balls all over their bodies run around in a circle of red-lit cameras. The cameras bounce signals off the balls and create a framework for the computer to replicate their bodies. This is called motion capture, and it tends to be used sparingly in video games to clone, say, the slam-dunk moves of an NBA player. In Fantasy, it's used for each one of the movie's estimated 1,500 shots in which any of its hundreds of characters move their body.

The end result of all this jiggery-pokery? It's not quite indistinguishable from reality--as with the dinosaurs and toys, there's a little too much artful puppetry in the actors' facial movements. And as the animators admit, CG lighting is still too harsh, too unnatural to reflect properly in eyes and on skin. But these are nitpicks. Fantasy isn't that far off the real thing. It's close enough to make you believe that in a couple more decades, our screens will be stuffed with synthetic thespians.

"We've created characters that no longer feel blatantly computer generated," says Sakaguchi. "If we press on, we can achieve the reality level of a live-action film, but I kind of like where we are now. It's not anime; it's not live action. It's something people have never seen before."

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