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Hollywood's brave new virtual world

The Phantom Menace, which takes place in soaring futuristic cities and among vast space battlefields, is one of the more visible examples of a world that is entirely computer-generated.

But computer graphics (CG) are increasingly being used not just to create effects or characters, but entire locations -- even if you can't distinguish those locations from reality.

"In the old Godzilla films, you had to really make a leap to believe that that was going on," said John Mellor, vice president of product marketing at Viewpoint Digital, which created digital character models for such films as Godzilla and Antz. "But in the Godzilla movie that came out last year, you see the monster running down the street in New York, and it's not much of a leap at all to let yourself be taken away by that movie."

In terms of special effects, Godzilla went one step further than Jurassic Park, which most in the industry cite as the first example of really convincing, computer-generated creatures. Where Jurassic Park combined fantasy creatures with physical sets, many of the sets in Godzilla were CG as well.

In a sequence where the monster chases a car across the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, bridge, monster and cars are all simulated. "Godzilla running down the bridge, the bridge bending under the weight of the lizard, the taxi following the bends of the bridge, while swerving -- all of that is digital, created with 3D models," Mellor said. "The software is able to mimic the reality of physics."

A few filmmakers are taking George Lucas' lead, using this technology to bring imaginary worlds to life. One visually stunning example might be What Dreams May Come, a recent movie that followed a Robin Williams character to the strange worlds after death. Another, perhaps more successful attempt is The Matrix, a science fiction film that represents "reality" through sophisticated computer graphics, while portraying the computer-generated environment of The Matrix through ordinary on-location photography.

"The Matrix was interesting, it did some things with special effects that brought it to a bit of a magical level, rather than just being in-your-face," noted Robyn Miller, co-creator of computer games Myst and Riven.

An upcoming adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson, is expected by some to set a new standard for movies about places that don't exist. But in many cases, computer effects don't necessarily open up new creative opportunities; they are simply part of what audiences expect in 1999. "If you look at the original Star Trek series, that was done with a plastic model on a string, basically circling around a tennis ball, and now it looks kind of campy," said Chris Johnston, 3D product manager for Softimage, which makes industry-leading 3D animation software. "As computer games become more popular, and there's more of these effects on TV, people expect more from the movies. [CG effects] become almost necessary."