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banner Monday, 10 September, 2001, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
Adventures in animation
Still from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within AP
Final Fantasy: Spirits within but without plot
Hollywood's latest computer animated effort is so life-like, the characters even have wrinkles. But what of the plot? BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward asks if movie makers are sacrificing story-telling for special effects.

We all know that film stars can be difficult.

We've heard countless stories of stars flouncing off set if they are filmed in an unflattering light or offered the wrong mineral water.

But one star has set new records for difficult behaviour by delaying the filming of one movie by months simply to get her hair fixed. The star was Aki Ross and the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

To be fair the delay was not all the fault of Ms Ross. This is because she is computer generated, and it was her creators who caused the hold-up by fussing over the animation of her hair.

Good hair day

This obsession with detail has led to Final Fantasy being hailed as a breakthrough in computer animation. The stars of Final Fantasy are not airbrushed and flawless, instead they have freckles, wrinkles and, of course, hair.

Often the effects are there for the sake of it rather than appropriate for the film

Robin Shenfield, Mill Films
Aki Ross has exactly 60,000 hairs on her head (less than the average human count of 100,000 plus), each one of which was animated individually by computers weighing factors such as gravity, friction, wind effect and wind delay to work out just how they should fall.

But the question has to be asked: why bother with such minutiae when there were more serious problems with Final Fantasy that went unfixed?

All the reviewers of the movie were wowed by the effects, but they also lamented its wooden characterisation, risible dialogue and incomprehensible storyline. The plot, if you don't know, concerns a plan to defeat wraith-like aliens by channelling the eight 'spirit waves' of Earth's planetary soul.

Live action extras

Other animated films, such as Shrek, Toy Story and Disney, used far less realistic animation but won plaudits for their strong characters, story and plot. Other shows, such as South Park, make a virtue of their poor animation, and rely on writing skills to bring characters to life.

Still from animated film Shrek Dreamworks
Shrek - engaging characters overcome adequate animation
So does the movement of hair really matter?

"I think that sometimes people get carried away doing things because it can be done rather than because it works," said Robin Shenfield, chief executive of Mill Films, which won an Oscar for its visual effects work on Gladiator.

Mr Shenfield said most of the effects created by Mill Films had to be convincing because they were used alongside live action sequences. But in animated films, directors could create their own worlds that did not have to be completely realistic.

Animators can become intoxicated with the possibilities of technology and forget about the basics of telling a story well. "Often the effects are there for the sake of it rather than appropriate for the film," said Mr Shenfield.

Impossible claims

The demands of making an animated film could have something to do with this skewing of priorities, said Mr Shenfield. In live action movies filming only goes on for a few months. In animated films it can take years.

Russell Crowe AP/Dreamworks
Gladiator: For this film Rome certainly wasn't built in a day
"Once you start an animated film it gets hard to go and unravel things," said Mr Shenfield. "Often you don't have the flexibility you do with live action."

Another reason not to try for realism is the fact that it is impossible to make animation utterly realistic with today's techniques and technology. Steve Hubbard, a lecturer at the National Centre for Computer Animation, said that although filmmakers were getting better at animating cloth, hair and faces, and that technology was getting more powerful, there was still a big gap between reality and the animated alternative.

"As you get closer and closer to real humans, the audience gets more and more critical," said Mr Hubbard. "We are all so familiar with human emotions that even if there is a very tiny hint that there is something wrong, we latch on to it and spot it."

Mr Hubbard defended Final Fantasy saying that the plot was "pretty standard" when compared with other animated movies. He said: "If you are looking for spectacular effects at the expense of plot you have to look at Hollywood blockbusters like Armageddon and Pearl Harbour."

When in Romeż

He said realism was not so key because no matter how good or bad the animation, people did not take long to suspend their disbelief in what they were seeing and slip into the world bounded by a film.

South Park
South Park: Woeful animation, sparkling scripts
As Robin Shenfield points out no film is entirely realistic. "Every movie is an interpretation and whether the tools are computer graphics or fibreglass does not make much difference," he said.

Certainly, Gladiator was criticised by classical scholars who spotted Romans using stirrups, Maximus sporting an SPQR tattoo and wheat planted in rows. The images of Rome that Mill Films created were director Ridley's Scott's version of what it should look like, rather than something that was historically correct.

But these details helped tell the story, deepen its feel and, as Mr Shenfield said, the film would have suffered without them. Perhaps this is the point - that as, in many other facets of life, good looks are no good if you have nothing else to say.

See also:

26 Mar 01 | Film
Crowe leads Gladiator to glory
21 Dec 00 | Entertainment
Toy Story 2 is 2000's top film
11 Feb 00 | Entertainment
Toy Story star dies
10 Aug 01 | Film
Q&A: Creating a fantasy
25 May 01 | Reviews
Pearl Harbor sinks fast
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