US Report: Synthespians have 'A Bug's Life'

When "A Bug's Life" opens in the US this week, the audience will get a glimpse at some of the most advanced technology used in movie-making yet.
Written by Lisa M. Bowman, Contributor

The evolution of "synthespians" -- computer-generated film characters -- has come a long way even in the three years since Pixar Animation Studios released its first full-length computer-animated film "Toy Story."

Pixar, which continues to be led by Apple Computer interim CEO Steve Jobs, developed an animation creation tool called RenderMan using some of the techniques its development team learned from Toy Story. The tool, which won a Scientific and Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has been used in the creation of movies such as "Contact" and "Forrest Gump."

Since then, Pixar has been working from its Northern California studios on some of the most challenging animation tasks -- namely, making hair and skin look more realistic on computer-generated figures. Just this year, Pixar won an Academy Award for its film "Geri's Game," an animated short featuring an elderly computer-generated man, with patches of hair, bushy eyebrows and wrinkled skin playing Chess in a park. The animation studio plans to use some of the technology developed for "Geri's Game" in "A Bug's Life" to create even richer images of the insects. One of the technologies, called "subdivision surfaces," lets animators create more realistic skin and clothing.

The new technology will be apparent in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways in the new film. For example, Heimlich, a Bavarian caterpillar featured in the movie, will look more like a big squishy bug than a flat clay-like creature because of the technology. What's more, characters will have a wider variety of facial expressions than ever before. For example, Woody, one of the most expressive characters in "Toy Story," had about 135 "motion controls" or digital levers that manipulate a character's features. In "Bug's Life," Flik, the movie's main bug, uses about 320 motion controls, and he's not even the most expressive character. "A Bug's Life" used ten times as much computing power as "A Toy Story."

The crowd scenes in "A Bug's Life" will also represent a leap in animation technology. In the "Jurassic Park" movies, which also were created with Pixar technologies, scenes with multiple dinosaurs showed the animals performing identical motions. But a close look at the insects in "A Bug's Life" will reveal subtle differences among each bug, from a nervous twitch to a jittery antenna.

Pixar's movies have been long in coming in part because each movie takes about four years to make. But the studio has a deal with Disney to produce five films in ten years, and expects to produce a new movie each year in the future. A sequel to "Toy Story" is due out in the 1999 holiday season, followed by a project current entitled "Hidden City".

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