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Monday, March 29, 1999 Published at 14:01 GMT


Digital animators wed art and technology

Jan and Geri pose for the camera

By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in San Francisco

In an office building in an unassuming San Francisco Bay area industrial park, 100 super-powered server-class computers hum 24-hours a day, seven-days a week in an air-conditioned room.

Each computer has 14 high-speed processors, and the 100 computers, linked together to work as one massively parallel computer, complete more than 400 billion calculations a second.

But all this computing power is not serving up web pages or crunching financial information. No, these computers are making cartoons.

This is the home of Pixar and the digital animators who created the first feature-length computer-generated film, Toy Story, and the recent blockbuster, A Bug's Life.

The animation bug

[ image: Pixar's cartoons still start with drawings]
Pixar's cartoons still start with drawings
Jan Pinkava of Pixar caught the animation bug after his father bought a book based on Bob Godfrey's BBC animation show Do It Yourself in the mid 1970s.

After being inspired by the creator of the cartoon classic, Roobarb and Custard, Jan said he began "pestering my parents, saying 'I want to animate'" .

One Christmas, he got his wish. "After we had all been eating stale bread for a month while my parents were saving up, we all got these amazing Christmas presents, real high-tech things. Mine was a really, top-of-the-range movie camera," he said.

After experimenting with several kinds of animation, a 15-year-old Jan created an animated short called The Rainbow. It won in the Young Filmmakers Competition on the children's BBC TV programme Screen Test.

At about that time, the Microchip Revolution began. "I became obsessed with computers. ... I wanted to dominate the world with computers," said Jan.

He earned a degree in computer science and theoretical robotics before returning to animation.

After working with computer animation in London for a few years, he e-mailed his CV to Pixar, where he was hired with dreams of doing an animated short.

The difficulty of simplicity

[ image: They studied cloth to learn how to render it]
They studied cloth to learn how to render it
Jan worked for a few years making award-winning adverts at Pixar before he got the chance to do an animated short.

The only catch was that he had to write a story with a human character. Pixar's Chief Technical Officer Ed Catmull wanted Jan to work on rendering people and clothing.

"Things that are so ordinary - like wearing clothes - turn out to be devilishly hard in computer graphics," Jan said.

Jan created Geri, an elderly man who challenges himself to a game of chess.

To bring Geri to life, Pixar did complex studies in cloth dynamics. Software wizard Michael Cass wrote a program that simulated the movement of Geri's clothes.

"It takes Newton's laws of physics, differential equations and all kinds of really heavy mathematics to simulate how cloth would behave if it would be draped on a character," Jan said.

The Minister of Geometry

[ image: It took a week to create Geri's 'geometry']
It took a week to create Geri's 'geometry'
According to Jan, Pixar is a marriage of the "techie and arty."

"There are many, many PhD's per square meter in this company," he said.

One of those PhDs is Tony DeRose, whose title was the Minister of Geometry for Geri. He helped solve the devilishly difficult problems of representing the old man.

Tony compares the digital animation process as one of creating digital puppets. They start with artists' drawings and then build the puppets.

They first create the geometry for the character, and then they add the "digital strings."

It took a week to create the geometry for Geri's character and "up to 10 times that much creating the digital strings," Tony said.

Geri's face had more than 300 separate animation controls, or digital strings as Tony calls them.

After they added the strings, they "spray painted" the character, adding colour and lighting effects. The animation department then brought the puppet to life.

All of this information was finally fed into the powerful computers and rendered. "It's just a big, number crunching problem," Tony said.

Each 1/24th of a second long frame of the Geri's Game took the computers an average of five to six hours to render.

The computers churned out one second of film every six computer-days. Geri's Game lasted a little more than 4 minutes. From concept to credits to computer-time, it took 18 animators two years to produce.

As Jan realised when he first took up animation in his youth, it's an arduous, time-consuming process, but to his BBC young filmmakers' award, Jan added has a golden statuette, an Oscar, for his work on Geri's Game.

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