ANIMATION: HARE RAISING ADVENTURE

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The day after director/animator Chris Wedge received a 1998 Academy Award nomination for his animated short film, Bunny, he was busy answering calls from well-wishers. How did he celebrate the night before -- lingerie models, agents, after-hours clubs? "I went home and babysat while my wife went to her book club meeting," admits Wedge. Wedge is hardly so mild-mannered in the office. With a group of fellow animators at Blue Sky/VIFX, a 3-D animation shop in Harrison, N.Y., Wedge wrote, planned, animated and rendered Bunny for eight years, stealing time on Blue Sky hardware over nights, weekends and holidays.

The story of a crotchety, old widowed rabbit who undergoes a metaphysical transformation, Bunny is bracingly photorealistic. The wordless, elegantly designed story is told with economy of style and compositional ingenuity. The scenes are both dark and richly textured. Bunny breaks new ground in the use of radiosity, a method of lighting CGI scenes that closely mimics the natural properties of light. "With radiosity, the light explodes into the room, showers and splinters around all the objects," says Wedge. "When you walk through a real room, you walk through a constantly changing matrix of light." The film is set mainly in the homey kitchen of a small cottage. The wooden table, soup ladles, a 1930s stove -- all of the objects are rendered lovingly, like a family portrait. "I based the kitchen on places I grew up with," Wedge says, recalling the cozy cottages of his Adirondack summers.

Unlike Antz or Toy Story, Bunny is designed to obscure its CGI nature. When Wedge began working in 1991, rendering the fur of the bunny was still five years away from 'reality.' The warm and funny emotionalism of the story -- the angry Bunny kills and bakes an obnoxious moth, who reunites Bunny with her dear, departed husband -- had to "wait for the technology to catch up," says Wedge. Wedge based the drawing style of the seven-minute short on classic children's books, especially the Uncle Wiggly series. He solved many of the finer fur-rendering problems thanks to CGI characters Blue Sky created for A Simple Wish, a 1998 Universal flop. Blue Sky -- which merged with the L.A.-based VIFX two years ago -- has traditionally made its living in 30-second TV commercials (talking coffee beans for Chock Full of Nuts; photoreal Braun electric razors). With dozens of high-end workstations and accomplished CGI animators in-house, what's to keep Blue Sky from producing a CGI film itself? "About $40 million," Wedge quips. With the heat from the Oscar nod turned up, Wedge hopes to announce a film deal, probably with Fox, in the next several months. It would launch Blue Sky into the rarefied company of PDI and Pixar, which both enjoyed millions of dollars in movie studio investments. Yet Blue Sky plans to maintain its commercial production capacities at 100 percent, Wedge says. "We can easily double our staff to accommodate a film," he says. "But a year later, most of those people are gone. TV commercials will always be our foundation."

Other Bunny credits include David Walvoord, senior technical director/digital effects supervisor; and Carl Ludwig, who ran the CGI development. Tom Waits

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