RealCities Click here to visit other RealCities sites - The inquirer home page Philly Photos
Help Contact Us Site Index Archives Place an Ad Newspaper Subscriptions   
Front Page
Local & Regional
US & World
High School Sports
College Sports
Real Estate
Hospital & Healthcare
Personal Finance & Investing
Daily Magazine
Arts & Entertainment
Theater & Dance
Television & Radio
Food & Dining
Home & Design
Health, Science & Technology
Health & Medicine
South Jersey Commentary
Pennsylvania Commentary
Community Voices
Sunday Review
Inquirer Magazine
Special Reports

Posted on Thu, Feb. 28, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Physics does what stunt artists can't

Associated Press
The gangly skeleton pauses at the top of the staircase, and then fearlessly dives headfirst, crumpling in a bone-jarring fall.

Petros Faloutsos chuckles as he replays the clip on his laptop computer. Again and again, the UCLA scientist commands the virtual character to dive.

The animation is primitive; the technology, complex.

Beyond the initial command to jump, the fall is completely unscripted. Physics, not the computer animator's mouse, controls the action.

Although his animation program is just a prototype, Faloutsos believes it one day will allow virtual stunt artists to replace their flesh-and-blood counterparts in performing otherwise deadly feats of derring-do.

"Maybe people will be directing virtual actors, and we'll have to give them Oscars, too," Faloutsos mused.

The brief clip is a glimpse into the nascent field of physics-based animation. The technique, whether used for movies or video games, strives to create a virtual world consistently guided by the same physical laws that give order to the real world.

"It's the Holy Grail of character animation. Everybody wants to do it, but there's not a whole lot of it out there right now," said Damien Neff, senior artificial-intelligence designer for NFL Fever 2002, a Microsoft Corp. video game that makes limited use of the technique.

As the technology matures, real stunt artists have mixed feelings about the impact they believe it will have on their craft.

"There's a positive side and a negative side: To talk positive, it's made it safer to do a stunt - you don't have to lay your neck out on the line as much as you used to. But it's taken some cash away, also," said Ben Scott, a Hollywood stuntman who works on the HBO series Six Feet Under.

Traditionally, animators have relied on their own talents to draw characters that appear to move naturally. Movie studios and game developers also bank increasingly on libraries of hundreds of stunts amassed by filming the sensor-studded bodies of real performers.

Those "captured motions" can then be matched to virtual characters and inserted into movies or games, where they appear real as they move within environments, such as sinking ships or burning buildings, that could put real actors at risk.

Animation systems such as the one created by Faloutsos and his former colleagues Michiel van de Panne, Demetri Terzopoulos and Victor Ng-Thow-Hing, attempt to trump both.

The key is using mathematical formulas that only loosely choreograph the movements an animator wants a character to undertake.

Command a character's arm to move, and the momentum will force its torso and head to shift as well.

The range of motions available to a character ultimately guides how it behaves, as does its own computer-generated sensitivity to both gravity and any forces imparted by its virtual surroundings.

Different environments, for example, will prompt the same character to move differently - and unpredictably. A fall on slick ice won't be the same as one down a steep flight of stairs.

In movies, physics-based animation techniques have been used to render inanimate things like the waves in The Perfect Storm or the shock of blue hair that coats James P. Sullivan in Monsters Inc.

In video games, they crop up in programming that simulates such action as racing or flying competitions.

With animated characters, attaining realism is far more difficult, however. Emotion can influence movement as much as gravity does.

"You can tell from how someone is walking if they're effeminate or angry. How would you account for that in a physics-based system?" asked Darren Hendler, technical director at Digital Domain Inc., a Los Angeles special-effects studio.

In the forthcoming movie The Time Machine, Digital Domain used a physics-based animation technique to render the collapse of thousands of skeletons of people turned to dust and bone.

Animators still shy away from using physics to model the movement of people, however. They say the human eye is just too good at spotting even the slightest hint of fakery.

But Faloutsos believes future systems will allow directors to guide characters as they do live actors.

"The ultimate goal is to have a totally complete human inside the computer that you can direct," he said.

Until then, officials with the Screen Actor's Guild know there will be work for the more than 6,600 Hollywood stunt artists the union represents.

"People, quite honestly, like to see human beings on the screen," said Ilyanne Kichaven, a guild spokeswoman. "There's still something an actor can bring to the screen that a computer-generated person cannot."

 email this |  print this

 Shopping & Services

Find a Job, a Car,
an Apartment,
a Home, and more...

News | Business | Sports | Entertainment | Living | Classifieds