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Keyboard is closing in on the paintbrush


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001

There's something creepy about Princess Fiona, the distressed damsel of DreamWorks' animated fairy tale Shrek, opening today.

Her complexion is supernaturally smooth, over an impossibly chiseled bone structure. Fiona's face is barely more flexible than a mask, with eyes that lack any spark of humanity. If not for Cameron Diaz's energetic dubbed voice, Fiona would be little more than an agile Barbie doll. Fantasy characters created from scratch, such as Shrek the ogre and a fire-breathing dragon, display more visual personality.

Put the blame on computer movie technology still not refined enough to appreciate the imperfections that make us human. It's the last frontier for a rapidly evolving medium that prides itself on making audiences believe.

Shrek's character supervisor, former Sarasota resident Tim Keon, won't argue those observations. But, he adds: "It's just going to get better and better. If you compare Fiona to the humans in Toy Story five years ago, you can see a fairly drastic change."

The next step is only weeks away. On July 11, Columbia TriStar will release Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, reportedly the closest approximation of humans ever animated. Previews show impressive special effects but the same vague blankness of expression you see in video games. More subtle touches are still achieved with a paintbrush than with a computer mouse.

Keon predicts that technology will advance and that moviegoers will gradually train themselves to believe in what they see. For now, audiences are so accustomed to hand-drawn human caricatures that realism will require some cognitive adjustments.

"When you look at cel animation, it's clear that you're looking at a two-dimensional image that was hand-drawn," he said. "What you have is a fairly large suspension of disbelief because you know what you're seeing isn't human. You tend to buy it.

"When you see something that is actually modeled in three dimensions, trying to replicate actual radiant lighting and skin texture and everything else, suddenly that suspension of disbelief becomes more shallow. Now, you're seeing something that looks like it should be real, but it's not moving the way you expect something real to move. Because it looks more real, you want it to move more real. Eventually, it will."

Keon has been manufacturing reality in studio animation since 1994, when he graduated from Sarasota's Ringling School of Art and Design, which he attended after graduating from Riverview High School in Sarasota. He moved to Los Angeles and was hired by Warner Bros. as a character designer for The Iron Giant and background artist for The Quest for Camelot. DreamWorks tapped him to supervise characters for Antz and Shrek, from sketch pad ideas to intricate models scanned and later mobilized by computer.

It's quite a leap from the days of Disney's "nine old men," pencil-and-ink artists who drew dozens of slightly varied images to create a few seconds of motion that computers perform with a few keystrokes. Speed is the only difference, Keon insists.

"Our bible in character animation and computer graphics is The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the 'nine old men,' " he said. "Most computer animators have either come from a traditional background or were inspired by a traditional background."

Yet, the new wave of computer artists also grew up playing video games. Influences from joystick rides such as Tomb Raider can be noted in Shrek, for example, especially in action sequences. Keon, in fact, is designing characters for a James Bond video game due at Christmas from Electronic Arts. At the same time, he's taking more interest in 2-D cel animation techniques.

Somewhere in between is a balance of old-fashioned fantasy and modern pizazz that computer animation may eventually achieve.

"Technically, there's no end to the learning curve," Keon said. "You're trying to replicate life, exaggerate life, delve into fantasy and emotion. The understanding of good aesthetic is important; being able to determine if a pose is strong or if a movement is fluid or if the arc of emotion is smooth.

"Animators seem to be a special breed who are aware of motion and physics by default. They have a clear understanding of how things move and how things work. But it's always changing. The animator who tells you he knows it all is lying through his teeth."

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