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Artificial Elegance

I grew up in a pre-CGI world where animation equaled cartoons, and the pinnacle of Hollywood’s special effects was the chase scene from Tron.

I grew up in a pre-CGI world where animation equaled cartoons, and the pinnacle of Hollywood’s special effects was the chase scene from Tron. Even Star Wars, the movie that ushered in the new era of special effects-driven films, was painstakingly low tech, with stop motion photography and models providing most of the action.

While it makes me feel old to see just how far the realm of computer animation and special effects have come in the last few years, it adds yet another dimension to the whole movie experience – jaw-dropping, mind boggling disbelief.

More and more, I find that I go to new movies these days purely to gawk at the latest animation – and I often come away disappointed because the animation didn’t break any new boundaries, or because the script, plot, and characters of the movie took a backseat to the effects.

For every Toy Story, however, there seems to be a dozen Big Blue’s out there, which suggests that this technology is maybe a little too affordable, and a little too widely available. Further evidence of this can be found anywhere on television, with computer animation selling everything from cars to toothpaste.

This abuse also diminishes the overall effect of computer animation at the movies, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Talking pets selling carpet freshener and space ships selling pop forces Hollywood to continually push the envelope, to go where no Gilette commercial has ever gone.

The results are stunning. A Bug’s Life, Shrek, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within are three beautifully rendered animated movies that went further than any before. The colours and the scenery are breathtaking, the characters are well drawn, and in the case of Final Fantasy, realistic right down to the pores on their digital noses.

Special effects have also come a long way in recent years, from the digital backgrounds of The Matrix, to the racing scenes in Driven, to the opulence of the city of Rome depicted in Gladiator, to the subtly gold-tinted world in O Brother, Where Art Thou.

While it is clear that CGI – computer generated imagery – can’t stand on its own without a good story, good direction, good script, good voices and excellent animation to back it up, there’s no question that the modern Hollywood "dream machine" is as much computer driven as it is driven by star power.

What’s next? Whether you’re a movie buff who wants to see what’s next, or someone considering a career change, you can find out all about the world of CGI at the following Web sites.

Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas’s own effects company is the force behind many of the major advancements to take place in CGI in recent years. Alongside Lucasfilm Ltd., ILM has put together five of the top 20 grossing films of all time.

Pixar is the company responsible for A Bug’s Life, both Toy Story movies, and the upcoming feature Monsters. Box office and video receipts from this one company total well over $1 billion.

PDI is the CGI-wing of the Dreamworks movie studio, producing Antz and most recently Shrek. They have also provided visual effects for A.I., Evolution, The Mexican, and Mission Impossible II.

This movie has set a new milestone for realistic animation, with characters and scenery that are so realistic it’s surreal. In the Production area of this site is a brief explanation of what the animators went through to make the characters this realistic, from the concise modeling of skin textures to the study of kinesiology, to the study of fabric textures.

If you want to get into animation you’re probably going to need at the very least a hardware upgrade and some very expensive 3D modeling software. VFXPro is a site dedicated to "The Art, Technology and Business of Special Effects." It’s a good place to pick up tips and find out who’s using what and why. You can download special effects, check out the latest hardware, and, if you’re a beginner, get an overview of what it’s all about. /

While you can teach yourself the art of 3D animation, it could take years to learn the skills to do it well. The Vancouver Film School and Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design both offer full and part-time animation courses.

The following sites may also be of use: – The 3D Café is a hub for skills development, tools, and industry news – The 3D Animation Workshop – SGI Entertainment, with animation examples, software links and reviews. – Free 3D software tools – Safe Harbor, a site for 3D industry news – A site by and for animators – Job postings, contacts, industry news, software news and reviews – The home site of Visual Magic Magazine, a 3D animation monthly – The home site of 3D Studio Max, one of the most commonly used animation platforms – An industry hub with news, downloads and trade show information – Visual Effects headquarters, a hub for the visual effects industry – Another industry hub with news events, jobs and company listings