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Film, game makers share skills

Computers drive special effects

SIGGRAPH 2006: From idea to image
It’s an academic conference. It’s a digital art exhibit. It’s drawing 25,000 people to Boston this week to see how emerging technologies are being used to educate, entertain, and study everything from the sea floor to the human body.

When David DeBry was working on the computer-animated film ``Antz" in 1998, he studied video games to figure out how to make armies of ants move on-screen. These days, DeBry makes video games, and now he picks up pointers by watching the digital special effects in Hollywood films.

DeBry should learn a lot when he visits Boston this week for SIGGRAPH 2006, which is an unusual blend of trade show and scientific conference. Academic experts deliver papers on the latest theoretical advances in computer graphics, while artists from gaming firms like Electronic Arts Inc. and movie studios like Walt Disney Co. show off their latest jaw-dropping digital effects.

``I can see the newest mathematical algorithms turned into the newest Photoshop filter," said conference chairman John Finnegan, who teaches computer graphics technology at Purdue University. ``You've got Academy Award winners alongside traditional graphic artists."

Nearly every live-action film produced today uses computer-generated effects, and not just for spectacular action sequences.

Terrence Masson, a former technician at Industrial Light and Magic, the movie special effects company founded by ``Star Wars" creator George Lucas, said that computers are often used to simulate crowd scenes or landscapes, because it's cheaper and simpler than building sets or shooting on location. As a result, movie makers need many of the same computer skills needed to make games.

Meanwhile, the 3-D graphics chips created for use by computer gamers have proven hugely useful to filmmakers.

Masson, chairman of the conference's computer animation festival, said creating rough drafts of a scene once took hours of computer rendering time. But today's graphics chips for gaming can do the same task almost instantly, and any standard PC can be a powerful graphics-creation tool.

``Ninety-nine percent of what you see in the movies today you could do at home, given enough time," Masson said.

It also slashes the time and effort needed to create a given effect. As a result, Masson said, studios cram every frame with dozens of pieces of digital eye candy. Despite the falling cost of digital technology, he said, this demand for more effects has helped to push the average Hollywood movie budget to around $70 million.

Hollywood has long been well represented at SIGGRAPH, said DeBry, a technical art director at Maxis, the game development house that makes the Sims and SimCity game series. ``A lot of the developers of the technology work for the movie studios," DeBry said. But until a few years ago, the video game industry stayed away. ``It's only been recently, in the last three or four years, that SIGGRAPH has made an effort to bring in video games," DeBry said. That's largely because the two industries now overlap so much. ``People go back and forth fairly easily," he said.

Game designers have definitely gone Hollywood. Many popular games feature an opening video created in the style of a Hollywood trailer. These videos are so important to the success of the games that game companies often have them produced by the same companies that make traditional movie trailers. Last year's SIGGRAPH computer animation festival, held in Los Angeles, featured the opening video for the hugely popular online game World of Warcraft. This year's fare will include the videos for the upcoming game Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, and the popular Japanese game Monster Farm 5.

When it comes to animating crowds, the gaming industry covets software developed in Hollywood -- a powerful program called Massive that was invented to create the huge battle sequences in the ``Lord of the Rings" movies.

Massive, which stands for Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment, works by instilling a measure of artificial intelligence in each animated figure, causing it to develop its own way of moving and reacting to its environment. As a result, each ``person" in a crowd acts differently from all the others, producing a much higher level of realism.

``These huge crowd simulations can now be done in games, in limited form," DeBry said. ``They can take a lot from what the film industry has figured out."

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

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