Building the Perfect Beast

Special-effects wizard Phil Tippett--creator of Starship Troopers' murderous bugs--envisions the digital future.

A yawning gap separates the ILM and Pixar aesthetics. That's not to belittle the comic skills of ILMers, who have done uproarious slapstick effects. In the dueling-bitch comedy Death Becomes Her, it was a hoot to see Goldie Hawn flatten Meryl Streep's head into her neck with a shovel until she looked like a chess queen. In The Mask, the computer animation that allowed Jim Carrey to bounce and gyrate appeared to spring from his own pliable core. And the memorable effects in Men in Black were its freakiest and tiniest--the wormlike creatures swigging coffee, the benign alien lodged in a humanoid brainpan.

But ILM's digital-effects team is best known for bringing photorealism into fantasy, and that can become monotonous. The dinosaurs in The Lost World are imposing but not haunting; they lack the mysterious gravity of Harryhausen's handmade beast from 20,000 fathoms. Speaking with a gifted animation supervisor at ILM, I kept asking whether the push to have computer-generated imagery duplicate physical reality was self-defeating. What would be the point? It's not the accuracy but the poetry you remember from Willis O'Brien's King Kong. Kindly and patiently, he replied that it would take years for a computer to even approximate the complexity required to render the tissue, bones and muscles of, say, a wrist.

When I pose the same question to Lasseter in a phone interview, he gets it: "Reality is just a convenient measure of complexity, a standard you use to judge your tools and abilities. I like to take a full step back and create something that doesn't exist and looks real; and if you keep doing this, the world is wide open as far as what you can do.

"Here it's always a two-way street--artists challenging technology, and technology inspiring the artist constantly. I follow Chuck Jones [the creator of classic Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons] the way Phil Tippett follows Ray Harryhausen. We study Chuck Jones cartoons for timing--they're masterpieces."

At the same time, Lasseter is as driven as anyone at ILM to push the expressive capacities of the box: "The complexity of the imagery is going to be astounding to audiences. It's exciting to think of the computer as a medium. That thing I hear you typing on--if it's not obsolete at this hour, by noon it will be. Toy Story took four years to make; during that time the advances were astounding. The first sequence we did was the army men--it works great, everyone loves it--but if you look at the level of complexity of those images and compare it with the last images in the chase sequence, you can see it's increased tenfold. When A Bug's Life comes out in 1998, we'll see an increase in image complexity of another order of magnitude." (The big advance: facial expressions.)

"What I like to do is not blend computer stuff with live action, but to create another world and have the audience sit there and know the world doesn't exist but still feel it's believable. The computer allows us to create the believable unbelievable, or the unbelievably believable. When [children's book author-illustrator] Bill Joyce saw Toy Story, he said, 'It's not like something you made, it's like something you dreamt.'"

Back in 1992, Phil Tippett saw his dreams crumbling on the computer screen. But in the early days of Jurassic Park, there was a terrible crash at the intersection of art and technology. It soon became clear that computer animators weren't immediately qualified to visualize mammoth reptiles dynamically and persuasively. As Spielberg's "Dinosaur Supervisor" (as his credit on the film read), Tippett schooled a corps of ILM and Tippett Studio animators in animal motion and behavior, encouraging them to prepare to "play" dinosaurs as actors would, with everything from mime and dance classes to field trips to animal sanctuaries and museums. "Before this," one ILM animator admitted, "I tended to just move my little mouse around and not use my body."

The ILMers, says Tippett, had to key into the manifold bizarreness of real-world movement--for example, "a twitch a dinosaur might make before it started to turn. Only then could they begin to understand the kind of reflexes and action they needed to emulate." Tippett enlisted the computer in his cause and turned computer animators into fans of the spikes and hiccups that would show up on their dinosaur readouts.

In collaboration with ILM, Tippett's close associate Craig Hayes developed the Direct Input Device (or DID, also known as the Dinosaur Input Device or the Digital Input Device). The DID, which Hayes had been thinking about for years, is basically a skeletal stop-motion puppet rigged with electronic sensors at each joint. The sensors record information on a controller box that translates it for software and use in a computer. From Tippett Studio's perspective, the DID allowed stop-motion artists to keep a tactile connection to their work and animate computer-graphic characters without learning a whole new technology. At the ILM end, it enabled computer animators not yet at full dino speed to study data that signaled the weirdness and anomalies of animal movement. Says Tippett: "If you look at the raw data you get from an animation file done with the DID, there are all these spikes and hiccups that pure computer-graphics guys would never have thought of; but eventually they saw that all this weirdness related to something a dinosaur might do."

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