Evolving Animation: It's All in the Pixels

Bob Parr is supposed to be a superhero with a big heart and a slightly oversized gut as well. But to the computers at Pixar Animation in California, Bob is really 84,581 "points."


Bob is the main character in "The Incredibles," the newest computer-animated film to be released by Pixar and the Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ABC News. The film marks something of a turning point for computer graphics. It is the first in which the main characters are human -- something they've avoided until now.

The computers that make all this possible could care less. Rick Sayre, the supervising technical director for "The Incredibles," calls them "idiot savants that would create the strangest results if we let them."

So back to the issue of points.

In a semi-darkened room at Pixar, just past a sign that says "Closed Set" (there is no physical "set" here, just a lot of computers), Bill Sheffler sits at a terminal, playing with a transparent wire-frame rendition of Bob. The points are individual dots in the computer's memory, programmed to move together whenever Bob picks up a car or does battle with a bad guy.

"You can see that the end of the pectoral muscle is actually sticking to this massive deltoid," Sheffler said. He uses medical terms to describe the computer-generated figure on his screen; beneath his desk he keeps a copy of "Gray's Anatomy," a book one would be more likely to find at a medical school than a movie studio.

Sheffler and his fellow engineers at Pixar designed Bob with virtual bones and muscles inside. Moviegoers will never see them, but they help to make Bob's on-screen movements believable.

"The characters are like puppets in a puppet show," said Sheffler. "The animators are like puppeteers, and I'm the guy who builds the puppets for them, so that they can use them however they want to."

Once the characters have been created, the animators' job ought to be easy. They pull and drag on the characters' muscles and facial features with a standard computer mouse. But it's exacting work.

Animator Steve Hunter showed a shot in which Bob lifts a giant robot.

"This is half a second," he said. "[It] took me probably a week."

Evolution of Animation

Computer animation has come a long way since "Toy Story," the first full-length computer-animated film. That was in 1995, and Pixar veterans say the toys in the film were the main characters for good reason: Yes, they made for a good story, but the technology of the time was not able to make a person look like more than a simple caricature.

Since then, the level of detail has grown a thousandfold, if not more. By the time Pixar made "Monsters, Inc." in 2001, the animators could show a blue monster with 3 million hairs. And in "Finding Nemo" (2003), they say they took special pride in rendering the dappled light beneath the Pacific Ocean.

But people are far more challenging. For one thing, they are complicated, with wrinkles, muscles, fat and slightly translucent skin. But more importantly, they are familiar -- if something about a human character is less than perfect, you are far more likely to notice than if, say, a fish is less than perfect.

"Every film," said animator Alan Barillaro, "we hit a point where almost everyone emotionally breaks down and has a crisis and says, 'Are you sure this is possible?'"

By and large, audiences say yes. "Shrek 2," released by Dreamworks, has been one of the year's big hits. And critics expect big things from "The Polar Express," in theaters later this month.

"The Polar Express," which looks remarkably like the paintings in Chris Van Allsburg's classic "Christmas Story," uses a different technology than Pixar's films. In it, Tom Hanks plays five roles.

To do it, he acted against a blank background, with 192 tiny infrared sensors glued to his face and the bodysuit he wore. A matrix of cameras recorded the sensors' movements, and used them to determine the movements of the computer-generated character Hanks was playing at the moment.

So when Hanks smiles, his character smiles and the laugh lines around his eyes move appropriately.

One would think computers make animation easier -- but animators say it's just the opposite. As computers advance, directors ask them to do more and more.

"Every film is dragged into the world kicking and screaming," said Pixar's Sayre, "with forceps."