April 23, 2004

Pixar Brings Movie Magic to Ithaca

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Over the past four nights, leaders in computer graphics and animation addressed audiences about movie-making, digital art and gaming. Part of Digital Arts and Graphics Week, the lectures were sponsored by the Computer Graphics program, the faculty of computer and information science and the Department of Architecture’s Preston H. Thomas Memorial Lecture Series.

The distinguished speakers were Rob Cook ’82, vice president of research and development at Pixar; Ed Catmull, president of Pixar; Prof. Marc Levoy ’76, computer science and computer engineering, Stanford; George Joblove ’76, senior vice president of technology at Sony Pictures Imageworks; and Douglas Kay ’76, chair of Mondo Media.

Don Greenberg, the J.G. Shurman Professor of Computer Graphics, helped organize the series. Greenberg, who studied architecture before turning to graphics, explained that he would like to see an interdisciplinary course of study for students interested in computer graphics. Greenberg said the art, architecture, computer science, theater and film departments would all be involved, as well as some physical sciences and computer engineering.

“It is a true interdisciplinary activity,” Greenberg said at the start of the lecture series.

Cook gave what he called “A Behind-the-Scenes Tour of Making Movies at Pixar” in Kennedy Hall’s Alumni Auditorium on April 19, taking the audience through the creation of an animated movie with the example of Finding Nemo, Pixar’s fifth consecutive box office hit.

Cook stressed collaboration between artists and scientists. He joked that deep down technical employees are “frustrated artists” and artists are “closet nerds.”

In order for a movie to be successful, he said, the story pitch and storyboards have to be “really captivating.” Finding characters and exploring environments for animation are, according to Cook, difficult research processes. For Finding Nemo, the computer artists took trips to Hawaii to find real examples of clownfish and coral.

Cook is the co-creator of RenderMan technology, which helps the rendering process of computer animation. He created the program with Prof. Kenneth Torrance, mechanical and aerospace engineering. RenderMan software forms the realistic surfaces in animated movies and is based on the physics of light reflection.

“Real surfaces are really, incredibly complex,” Cook said.

Finding Nemo, which is 100 minutes long, has 144,000 frames of three billion pixels. On average, each frame takes six hours to render, which explains why it takes up to five years to create a full-length animated film.

At the end of his presentation, Cook showed the short film For the Birds and a teaser for the upcoming movie The Incredibles, which features humans rather than animals or monsters.

Catmull spoke on “Crisis in Production” at the Statler Auditorium on April 20. He opened his address saying that he would discuss “the stuff that we don’t normally talk about.”

After Toy Story, Pixar’s first full-length film, was released, Catmull’s production staff complained about the film.

“Success hides problems,” Catmull said. Catmull stressed looking at both the good and bad before making drastic decisions.

One of Pixar’s biggest crises was Toy Story 2, which was originally a direct-to-video production. Part of the way through production, Pixar executives realized the film was not working and decided to throw everything except the animation models away.

“That was a gruesome experience,” Catmull said. It was after this crisis that a doctor and masseuse joined the staff. Employees also now have to petition to work more than 50 hours per week.

The first lesson, according to Catmull, is “if you give a good idea to mediocre people, they will screw it up.” The second lesson, he said, was to stay away from direct-to-video production. He explained that this would create two standards of quality, one of which is cheap and degrading.

Toy Story 2 was the defining moment of the studio. [It] changed the way we think about things,” he said.

The biggest thing Pixar learned, Catmull said, was “we could pull the plug ourselves.” Although they were distributed by Disney, they realized that the older company was not the final authority. This theory was tested again with Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, as both had “major overhauls” during production.

Catmull’s employees take classes on improvisation and drawing at Pixar University. Learning from their first movie, critiques are now central to Pixar’s environment, Catmull said.

“It is important for us to maintain that culture of pushback,” he explained.

Echoing Cook, Catmull stressed the balance between the artists, technology specialists and production aids, saying it is necessary to have equality in contributions, authority and compensation. “They’re allowed to intermarry,” he joked.

Catmull ended his lecture with a viewing of Pixar’s newest short, Boundin, which will be attached to The Incredibles when it opens in Nov. 2004.

Levoy discussed the Digital Michelangelo Project and the Forma Urbis Romae Project in Alumni Auditorium on April 21. With an architecture background and a faculty position in the computer science department at Stanford, Levoy focuses on the cross of art and computers.

Using laser scanners, Levoy spent a year in Florence digitizing Michelangelo’s most famous works of art. Levoy said his motivations for doing the project included challenging three-dimensional technology and helping art historians.

The detailed images show marks left by Michelangelo’s chisel that are not visible to the naked eye. The project also exposed views that are not easy to see, such as the top of David’s head and even his anatomically incorrect furrowed brow.

“Michelangelo knew exactly what he could get away with,” Levoy said.

The Forma Urbis Romae is an attempt to recreate an ancient Roman stone map of the city. Only 15 percent of the carved stones have been uncovered, and it has taken centuries to piece together just a few. By scanning the stone slabs, Levoy explained, matches can be made much faster.

“It’s a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. We don’t just put together the picture of the cow in the meadow and we’re done,” Levoy said.

Using dynamic programming analysis, the computer team clusters and matches pieces with vector angle math and common sense. Levoy said that the work might lead to new excavations once ancient buildings are discovered on the map.

“Human archaeologists are still needed,” he joked, explaining that the entire map will never be completed digitally.

The two concluding lectures of Digital Arts and Graphics Week were held yesterday in Alumni Auditorium.

Kay spoke about “Digital Imagery in Entertainment.” He explained some of the similarities and differences between games and movies. Both mediums go through storyboards, then layout and animation. But “we don’t have the luxury of just showing,” Kay said.

Game creators must detail every angle of a scene because interactive games allow players to walk around, under, or over certain objects.

Kay discussed the shrinking gap between movies and games, giving examples of movie-to-game ideas, such as The Lord of the Rings and the less-successful Final Fantasy. Mondo Media created an example of an interactive movie, called Gone Bad. An animated movie that Kay described as “a zombie mafia movie,” the film is low-budget but still allows the studio to show off its technical skills.

“It’s somewhat of an experiment,” he warned before showing a clip to the audience.

“The current world of movie effects … is going to be what’s happening in gaming,” Kay said. He predicted that within the next two generations of consoles, there will be nearly photo-quality images on the screen.

“It’s going to open up a whole new way of interactivity,” he said. Joblove lectured on “Digital Imaging Technology and Feature Motion Picture Production.” Sony Imageworks is frequently brought in to work
on other studios’ films such as Big Fish, Cast Away, the Spider-Man movies and most recently The Polar Express.

Noting the use of digital cameras and editing capabilities, Joblove explained the changing technology with which the movie industry is now faced. The biggest problem with the digitized creation of movies is that many theaters, which have used 35-millimeter film for more than a century, are not equipped with the technology to show such advanced works.

“We are trying to come up with a new standard” for all studios to use, Joblove explained. Now, he said, studios that use digital technology in film production will still have to switch to film for distribution.

The rise of digital effects has created “major new opportunities for visual story-telling,” Joblove said. “It’s an arduous process” for very detailed hand animation, so the studio also uses motion capture imaging to create “an uncanny sense of motion and animation and facial expressions.”

Joblove showed clips from some Imageworks projects, including the Charlie’s Angels films, Hollow Man and Cast Away. Joblove ended his speech with a preview of the upcoming Spider-Man 2. During his speech, Cook said, “Our ideal is to view the computer as a really great brush.” By the close of Digital Arts and Graphics Week, many of the other speakers shared this sentiment of seeing art and science co-existing tools that are creating the future of movies, art and all forms of entertainment.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Writer