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May 17, 2002
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Posted on: Monday, February 25, 2002

Cyber stuntmen closer to reality

By Andrew Bridges
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The gangly skeleton pauses at the top of the staircase and then, fearlessly, dives headfirst, crumpling in an apparently bone-jarring fall.

Petros Faloutsos is working with a projected computer image of his prototype stunt skeleton diving headfirst down a staircase at his office on the UCLA campus.

Associated Press

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

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 video game that makes limited use of the technique.

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."

As the technology matures, real stunt artists have mixed feelings.

"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."

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