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July 13, 2001

FINAL FANTASY: TECHNOLOGY MEETS HOLLYWOOD

By Scott Douglas

DALLAS (SMU) -- Moviegoers who settle into their seats to see "Final Fantasy," released in theaters July 11, will experience an artificial world created by using the latest computer imaging technologies. All-digital animated features are nothing new; witness "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2," "Antz," "A Bug's Life," and most recently, "Shrek." What is new, however, are the characters themselves. Rather than being bugs, toys or fantastical monsters, all of the protagonists in "Final Fantasy" are human- --- remarkably human -- in form. These characters were born from a long-running video game series of the same name and now find themselves acting out their lives on the big screen.

We are witnessing the creation of a new entity: the digital actor. This movie star need not attend school to learn her craft, nor does her discovery lead to fame, fortune and a charmed life. Instead, her actions are defined by hundreds of digital animators and artists in a visual rendering process. Her speech is constructed from isolated phrases that were recorded in a sound studio. When the movie ends, her life is placed on temporary hold until the next feature film in which she is the star.

Real-world actors may be concerned about this newly created competitor for their artistic services. If history is any guide, however, their worries are likely to be unfounded.

When electronic drum machines were introduced into popular music in the 1970s and 1980s, many believed that they would mark the end of the drummer -- until it was discovered that drummers were often the best programmers of such devices. New artistic tools usually create new avenues for the best artists to explore. The results of their explorations are then left for the rest of us to judge and enjoy.

A much more likely future issue is the "digitization" of a real-world actor. When the movie "Hollow Man" was first shown last summer, audiences were treated to a translucent digital version of Kevin Bacon for several of the film's more amazing scenes. One can imagine a day when an actor's digital likeness is used throughout a movie, perhaps interacting with digital versions of other actors. The most popular actors will charge exorbitant fees for use of their digital likenesses and will carefully limit the number of "realistic" performances of their digital counterparts. Less popular actors' likenesses will appear in television sit-coms and commercials. Renegade directors will use actors' likenesses without consent in unauthorized works, leading to infringement lawsuits and eventually new laws on such "performances." Will audiences accept all of this animated entertainment as real? Given our desire to suspend belief when being entertained, the answer is quite likely a "yes."

Digital technology is not only affecting the actors in front of the digital "lens." It is also affecting the filmmaker's art. For example, traditional films are shot using a fixed number of cameras to capture the action within a scene. Using digital technology, one can construct new visual perspectives of a scene by digitally interpolating several views. The slow-motion action scenes in "The Matrix" were a stunning example of this technology. In the future, a director might shoot a performance quickly, knowing that he can carefully choose any desired perspective later in digital post-production. Once again, technology is giving the artist more freedom to practice his craft.

Scott Douglas is an associate professor of electrical engineering at the Southern Methodist University School of Engineering.


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