`Lights, Camera...O.K., Byte Brain, Do Your Stuff'

There's a point about midway through the new animated film Beauty and the Beast where the Beast takes Beauty's arm and guides her into his castle's ballroom. The doors open, the audience gasps, and the two stroll in, dance, and fall in love. The mood and atmosphere needed to be just right. To get it, Walt Disney Co. turned not to its army of talented animators but to a cluster of computers arrayed in a single room in Glendale, Calif. The staggering scene -- a glittering ballroom that soars 72 feet to a painted ceiling with gilt cherubs -- is the first fully computer-generated, three-dimensional setting in a Disney animated feature. It is but the latest example of the march on Hollywood by the techno-nerds, whose computers are quickly moving into the mainstream of entertainment. Working out of studios from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, these graphic artists are using computer-generated images to make their mark on feature films, snazzy television commercials, and music videos such as Michael Jackson's new Black or White.

LOSING FACE. They work their magic in different ways. Disney artists used the computer to draw a 3-D ballroom, complete with a twinkling chandelier. Then the directors were able to fly an imaginary "camera" around the digitized image as if it were a live-action film. That lends photo-realism and a more dramatic sense of movement. Once the computer's camera recorded the entire scene, the characters of Beauty and the Beast, which were drawn and colored by hand, were placed in the ballroom electronically.

In contrast, most of the special effects in the new Michael Jackson video started with traditional live-action video snippets. Then, using a series of complex calculations in a technique known as "morphing," a computer combined and contorted the images. A series of flashing faces, gracefully blending into one another, became the most striking sequence in Black or White.

Until recently, most of these effects weren't practical because of the high cost of powerful computers. Now, desktop workstations costing less than $15,000 can do much of the graphics work once done by million-dollar supercomputers. At the same time, software has improved dramatically. Three years ago, producing special effects on a computer cost as much as eight times what it cost using traditional techniques, such as shooting footage of scale models, says John Dykstra, creative director at Apogee Productions Inc. Apogee produced the special effects in Black or White. But now, Dykstra says, the cost is only 50% more. And some effects, such as morphing, can't be done well without computers.

When it comes to Disney-style animation, artists can now create animation even more cheaply with computers than by hand. For years, Disney has used computers to automate repetitious and routine drawing and coloring, such as stamping out the hundreds of plates, forks, and goblets for one of Beauty and the Beast's musical numbers. But paint and brush are no match for computers in creating 3-D settings and other tough jobs.

Computers have been auditioning for bit parts in films for nearly two decades. Some of the more primitive attempts, however, yielded animated characters that were emotionless next to hand-drawn animation. And sometimes, the cutting between live-action footage and computer graphics was too visually jarring, as in 1984's The Last Starfighter from Lorimar Telepictures Corp.

OFF-KEY TOONS. But the success of last summer's Terminator 2 unleashed a rush to new technology. In that case, Industrial Light & Magic, part of director George Lucas' LucasArts Entertainment Co., gave the film a character that could turn itself into an animated molten-metal man as it tried to terminate Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the coming months, Hook, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and Batman Returns are among the titles that will show off computer-generated sequences.

No one expects computers to completely replace hand-drawn animation or other conventional techniques any time soon. "Unless there's an animator behind the computer," says Dan Philips, manager of Disney's computer-generated imagery department, "you're going to end up with what the machine thinks is correct, and that's bad animation."

Disney, in fact, has yet to debut an actual computer-animated character in a feature film. But that will change. Next fall, the company is set to begin work on the world's first fully computer-animated feature. The as-yet-untitled work is being produced for Disney by Pixar, a Silicon Valley outfit that won an Academy Award in 1989 for the best animated short film. Perhaps one day soon, a teary-screened computer, thanking its parents, will take home an Oscar.

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