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FOR ED ULBRICH, THIS MUST FEEL LIKEdeja vu all over again. Before he joined Digital Domain as executive producer, the photogenic Ulbrich worked in the production department at Leo Burnett in Chicago. "It's the land of critters," he admits with a sigh. "We can argue about them creatively, but for better or worse they work, from a branding point of view."

Indeed they do, as Tony and Charlie and the Energizer Bunny will proudly attest. And while advertisers have always recognized the powerful allure of spokescritters, these days they don't have to settle for choosing between cartoon versions, animatronic puppets or the live-action performances of mind-controlled domestics like Morris or Spuds. Instead, they can simply create their critters from scratch, doing what Digital Domain effects supervisor Fred Raimondi likes to call "a little genetic engineering." You want a cartoony goldfish that looks sort of real but not too real? How about an ant colony that looks real but acts looney tuney? Or maybe a rhinoceros, of courserous, that's real enough to stop traffic in midtown Manhattan?

You asked for it, you got it-a toy story, of sorts. "It's like there's this renaissance in character work, but now it's all largely CG," says Ulbrich, whose company has worked on Budweiser's party-hearty computer generated ants and computer-enhanced, animatronic football playin' Clydesdales and beer slurpin' frogs, in addition to Lowe's Mercedes spot in which an E-class sedan mixes it up with a crosstown rhino.

The current surge in crispier critters is enough to rival the Warner Brothers stable for diversity. Aside from the various photorealistic species to be found romping through "Jumanji," there's the abundant character animation featured in "Toy Story"-the popularity of which, many in the effects industry say, will only open the doors for more CGI character work. On the commercials front, you've got those ants and horses and rhinoceri, along with Pepsi's Super Bowl goldfish; that lovable, Beemer-drivin' penguin; the dinosaur skeleton (if you want to call it a critter) that performed Stupid Museum Specimen tricks in McDonald's Super Bowl spot; and, of course, Coke's polar bears.

Back on the features front, waiting in the wings is TriStar's "Dragonheart," the hero of which is an ILM-created CGI dragon with the voice of Sean Connery; the movie is planned for a spring release.

What's behind this rapidly emerging digital menagerie? For the most part, say effects pros, it's a combination of software refinements and increased rendering and processing speed-the basic tools being a range of proprietary programs and a bevy of Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems hardware-all placed in the hands of animators whose training is more Disney than DEC. "It's allowed us to put some of the 2-D cel animation thinking back into the process, so we weren't losing that spark of getting the characters," says ILM's Steve Beck, who directed Fallon McElligott's BMW spot with the animated penguin.

The ability of animators-and the software engineers they work with mouse-in-hand-to imbue their characters with a greater than ever sense of warmth and charm has made even remaining skeptics become computer converts. Of course, it doesn't hurt that much of this work, from "Toy Story" to the polar bears, has been embraced by audiences. "People will respond to performance," says Dennis Ryan, group CD on Bud at DDB Needham, "and now, thanks to these computer skills, you can lend a previously impossible performance to just about anything." Adds Beck, "A lot of this comes from 2-D animators knowing how to work in a 3-D realm, and knowing how to move things through space." For years, he explains, computer animation people have been mostly preoccupied with technical issues: "How do I get it to render faster, how do I get higher resolution, how come it takes forever to do this stuff?" Before animators could begin to think about adding nuance and style to their work, he points out, "they had to be able to focus on that part of the problem-but the paradigm didn't exist for them, it was all stuck in the heads of people writing code, who weren't animators, in a traditional sense."

But then along came people like Pixar's John Lasseter, who came out of the Disney Studios. "He applied his genius to this, and he broke the barrier," says Beck. Peter Docter, supervising animator of "Toy Story" at Pixar, obviously agrees. "Even professional animators didn't think that computers could do things with heart," Docter says. Yet after the film debuted, he got a complimentary call from Richard Williams, who directed the animation for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

Another factor changing the look and feel of computer characters is the influx of new talent in the field, of artists with different backgrounds and styles. "We're seeing more people from other kinds of animation move into the computer realm, not just from hand drawn but from clay and stop motion," says Henry Anderson, animation director at Rhythm & Hues. "There's also a generation of animators now who've grown up using nothing but computers, and they're starting to make their contributions felt. Some of them can't draw with a pencil very well, but they understand movement and timing, which is what's key to getting a performance."

Now, all this is great, if your goal is to create an exaggerated performance in the Animaniacs mold, but one of the real breakthroughs in computer-generated characters is the ability now to make photorealistic animals. They look real, for the most part, only now they can do things no animal could be trained to do. And while photorealism is what made "Jurassic Park" such a hit, when it comes to commercial budgets and schedules, few have tried it-until a gang from Lowe came up with the idea of illustrating side-impact air bags by placing a new Mercedes in a herd of lumbering rhinos.

"What we wanted to do with this project is prove we could do it on a commercial budget and schedule," says Ulbrich. "Right now, we're getting things to the point where we can turn them around much faster than before." Ulbrich notes that when feature films attempt this kind of work, they usually allow for months and months of intensive R&D; while commercials have benefited from some of this amortized code-crunching, there are still instances, such as this one, when they've got to start from scratch.

Creating the rhinos, he says, "was a nightmare, and not because of anything other than the process, which is painful and tedious." The big problem, of course, is that when you're going for photorealism, a different set of representational criteria must be met. "You may not know the anatomy of a horse or a rhino or a dog, but you know what one looks like when it moves," says Ulbrich. "And when it's wrong, you know it's wrong. The scrutiny it falls under is greater, even on a subconscious level."

There's a different pressure on animators and engineering types alike when the CGI is meant to look real, and it's one that seems to take some getting used to. Says Beck, whose BMW penguins so fooled people in the production business that he's been asked who he used as a penguin wrangler on the shoot, "the tech people who operate these systems have had their eyes opened and been forced to improve on how they see things. Now they've got to look in the mirror more often, the mirror being reality."

The Lowe team was aware that trying to make their rhinos look real would prove to be no day at Busch Gardens. Still, they were convinced that their concept wouldn't work with any other animal, not that Ulbrich didn't try to talk them into water buffaloes or elephants. Rhinos are an endangered species, unpredictable, dangerous and impossible to train. At best, the Digital Domain crew worked with stock footage or footage shot at zoos to study their movement. Meanwhile, at the pitch, Lowe copywriter Marty Orzio says the client wasn't as worried as the agency was about being able to pull it off: "They kind of figured that in this day and age, you can do anything-and it's up to us to figure out how."

The commercial was directed by Bruce Dowad, who took pains to design it around the limitations of CGI and compositing, photographing it in high-contrast b&w and paying extra attention to lighting. His goal, he says, was to "create a sense of environment and atmosphere, a heightened sense of reality that would provide places where we could hide the faults of the CGI." Overall, he adds, the keys to photorealistic success lie in the details, and that takes time and finesse. "'Rhinos' needed its three and a half months," he says. "The process is like retouching-it's a very sophisticated, supple process that can't be done crudely."

In general, both the rhino and penguin spots suggest that the era of the big, glitzy, supercolossal effects job might be ready to give way to more subtle expressions of simpler ideas. "Without a doubt, effects often became the default for lack of a concept," says Beck of advertising's frequent use of awesome visuals in place of meaningful ideas, "but that's changing over time because of how the industry is changing. Now you've got places like ILM, Pacific Data Images and Digital Domain, and great Flame artists out there-you have no reason why you can't come up with a really great idea."

While critters seem to be all the rage, one thing that effects people are compelled to frequently remind us is not to expect too much from warm and fuzzy CGI. Rhythm & Hues' Anderson says that CGI is still evolving, much the way cel animation evolved from the stylized, rounded characters of its early days to the more detailed realism of classic '40s and '50s Disney fare like "Bambi."

"Just to do the polar bear spots a few years ago would have been impossible," he points out. "It would have taken days to generate one frame."

And, as Ulbrich notes, some things are still beyond the reach of computers: "Certain types of matted fur and short hair work, but those kinds of instances where fabric bends and creases over an organic form, or flowing hair, are still out of reach, even on a major feature film budget and schedule."

Maybe this is something we should be thankful for. Then again, it's probably just a matter of time before you'll be able to take Buzz and Woody, dress them

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