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Alvy Smith: Beyond Pixel-Perfect Images

Over the past five years, Alvy Ray Smith has received two Academy Awards -- more than Gwyneth Paltrow or Tom Cruise. Yet few people outside of the computer-graphics business would recognize him. To get his awards for technological achievement in movies, in fact, Smith had to go to a different ceremony than the one broadcast on TV, though at least he got his trophies from celebrity presenters: "I haven't washed the spot on my arm where [actress] Ashley Judd touched me," Smith jokes. At least one night a year, Hollywood's geeks get to share some limelight with its stars.

And for good reason. Smith and his cohorts are as responsible for the success of many movies as the actors and actresses themselves. Remember the spectacular moment in Titanic when passengers jump into the icy North Atlantic?" Or the evil, liquid robot rising from a puddle of silvery something in Terminator II? None of these special effects, which helped make those movies famous, would have been possible without the technologies Smith invented.

Now comfortably retired at 58, Smith snaps digital photos, writes scientific papers on graphics, and concentrates on adding to an extensive geneological database of his family that contains more than 10,800 people -- one of whom was inventor Thomas Alva Edison.

PICTURE-IN-PICTURE. Smith has been bitten by the same curiosity that characterized Edison. In the late 1970s, he created the first full-color computer-graphics program with higher-than-videotape resolution and a palette of 16 million colors. The program allowed artists for the first time to make computer paintings and graphics of the quality required for the silver screen. Thus, Smith's invention was the forerunner of the exotic special effects that are now common in movies.

Around the same time, in 1977, Smith co-invented digital composition. This technology allows artists to place an image of a car over an image of a landscape and automatically get all the shadows right and make the car's windows

appear transparent, explains co-inventor and president of animation studio Pixar (PIXR) Ed Catmull.

These days, digital composition is at the heart of the rapidly growing video-game industry. That business, which has larger annual revenues than Hollywood movies, relies on many of the same production tools for animated scenarios in shoot-'em-up and sports games. "He is one of the leaders of the industry," says Smith's friend Jim Blinn, a Microsoft research fellow and graphics guru in his own right. Blinn attributes Smith's achievements to his "his enormous passion for quality in images."

UP FROM CLAY. Passionate, yes. Satisfied? Not a chance. "I don't think you've seen anything yet," says Smith. "We're still at the 'Wow!' stage, not the truly sophisticated stage" of computer graphics. That's hard to believe, considering the intricacy of current graphics and the rapid advances in the field.

Witness the Star Wars series. In the first movie of George Lucas' original trilogy, filmed in 1970s, animators used clay models and could barely squeeze two or three spacecraft into the same frame. In the later movies, animators used computertized special effects to create battle scenes consisting of hundreds of fast-moving objects against a changing background of stars and planets.

Next, Smith envisions a world where computer graphics go way beyond the liquid metal of Terminator II. The Holy Grail of computer graphics is creating animated people who look as real as you and I, Smith says. "We humans are very picky about representing human beings," he adds. "You can't be close, you have to be dead on." The first serious attempt at creating animated humans that weren't cartoonish came in last year's action movie, The Final Fantasy from Square USA. It bombed because the technology couldn't create images that were sufficiently lifelike, Smith says.

FLUID MOTION. The next attempt should come much closer, he thinks. Al McWiggin, the villain of the world's first fully computer-animated film, Toy Story, had thousands of controls in his face that allowed animators to move, say, his lip into the snarling position. Future computers would allow animators to cost-effectively work with millions of controls and get every pore, every wrinkle right, Smith says.

Still, he believes that replacing real actors shouldn't be the goal of graphic designers. Instead, they should work on improving the reality of scenes and using graphics to help tell stories, rather than for special effects. For example, Pixar is now working on ways to improve the depiction of underwater movements in its next animated film, Finding Nemo, a father-son adventure scheduled for release in 2003.

To create simulations of the real world that satisfy finicky crowds, animators will require advances in computer graphics as well as more powerful computers. To put together its hit movie Monsters Inc., Pixar used 250 Sun Enterprise 4500 servers running a total of 3,500 processors with nearly four terabytes of main memory. More advanced tools would let designers make more realistic textures and surfaces, says Smith -- and give characters more natural movements and facial expressions. Such tools should come within the next 20 years as computers get faster and as so-called parallel processing speeds up the rendering of these processor-intensive images.

BLURRED BOUNDARIES. Ultimately, such innovations could make animation and computer-graphics tools that ordinary people use in their homes, Smith says -- just as home PC buyers now routinely use a 16.7-million-color palette. Work that now requires a $250,000 workstation will soon be doable on a laptop. In fact, Apple has already incorporated movie-editing software into its iMac line and has made the same software a free download from its Web site. Thus, home videos could soon end up with animated characters. And eventually, the animated and the real might blur as both become integral parts of the perceived world in video games, greeting cards, home movies, and even e-mail.

That may sound a little far out -- but not to Alvy Smith. Just imagine how bizarre the concept of animated liquid metal on the silver screen would have sounded to Orson Welles, back in the days of Citizen Kane. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

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