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Ani-mania

At well over $200 million in ticket grosses and counting, Shrek is the undisputed champion of this summer's box office. Brought to life using state-of-the-art computer graphics, or CG, the film and its lovable green ogre have captured moviegoers' hearts, while surprising many in the industry with their phenomenal success.

Looking at the brief history of CG animation, maybe Hollywood shouldn't have been so surprised. Shrek is the latest sensation in the computer-animated subgenre, whose big bang was Disney's Pixar-produced Toy Story. The success of the film, coupled with advances in animation technology, paved the way for other animated features like Antz, A Bug's Life, Dinosaur and the hugely successful Toy Story 2.

Creating lifelike digital characters is the next frontier. Later this month, Square Pictures, the producers of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, is hoping to wow older audiences by taking CG technology to the next level. Four years in the making, the sci-fi saga is inspired by the best-selling video game series. The film aspires to be the first computer-generated movie whose animated actors look and move like real people.

While the graphics of the film are visually astonishing, the process was far from easy. To create realistic facial features and body movements, Final Fantasy animators had to pioneer live-actor motion capture and the latest in animation technology. Director Hironobu Sakaguchi hired some of the world's best software engineers and programmers and brought them to Square's Hawaii offices. His brain trust choreographed a team of actors through the movie's major scenes, capturing their gestures and body movements with specially designed suits synched to camera equipment. Animators downloaded the live-action scenes to computers, using tens of thousands of shaded polygons to render faces that look absolutely photographic.

Will this spell the end of traditional animation as we know it? Probably not. Although CG is currently the hot ticket, there are plenty of hand-drawn features in production. Nevertheless, industry leaders say that in the future, we're probably going to see a lot more convergence between traditional hand-cell-painted animation and CG. Case in point: this summer's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which features both methods.

In the meantime, animation fans certainly have a lot to look forward to. This year, the Academy Awards will feature a new category for animated features. Later this year, Disney will release Pixar-produced Monsters Inc. and a Shrek sequel is already in preproduction. In perhaps the biggest indication CG has gone mainstream, action guru John Woo recently announced that he will direct a big-budget CG version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that brings the quartet back to their darker comic book roots. Cowabunga, dude.

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