- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

Let’s have a quick show of hands. Would you rather watch “Robots” or Steve Martin’s “The Pink Panther”? “Shark Tale” or “Miss Congeniality 2”?

It’s no contest. Even the least of the computer-animated cartoon features makes for a better time at the movies than your average big-screen comedy. And it’s no accident.

For a medium that’s essentially a decade or so old — “Toy Story” debuted in 1995 — the format boasts an exceptional track record compared to traditional films.

And the majority of CGI creations aren’t aimed solely at the toddler set. Parents can enjoy them as much as, if not more, than their wee ones.

Darla Anderson, the producer of Pixar’s new animated feature “Cars” (opening nationally today), says the animation process as a whole lends itself to continual fine-tuning.

Animated movies, from “Snow White” through “Cars,” require intensive storyboarding before the first character ever gets animated.

“It’s a discipline that comes with the medium,” Miss Anderson says. “It leads to good stories. You have the whole movie up in a certain format for a couple of years before filming.”

Then the screenplay starts taking shape.

“We do the same thing in our story room that the guys on ‘Snow White’ did, we string it all together,” she says.

Even after the animation process has begun the folks at Pixar aren’t finished tinkering.

“We stop the production, look at it from every angle,” she says.

Sometimes, the process can be painful.

Well into the creation of Pixar’s 2001 smash “Monsters, Inc.” the production team subjected Sully, voiced by John Goodman, to an extreme makeover.

“He was a loveable loser, he wore glasses and couldn’t see well,” Miss Anderson says.

The Pixar team made him scarier, which she says corrected the story’s inherent imbalance. “It hurt a lot,” she recalls. “There’s a lot of investment. I had a big stomachache that day.”

No wonder a film like “Cars” can take up to four years to create.

Bonnie Arnold, a producer on DreamWorks’ hit feature “Over the Hedge,” says that filmmakers can do a rough draft of a computer animated feature that affords them an early glimpse of what the finished product might be — allowing them plenty of time to identify — and correct — problems.

A film like “Hedge” typically begins its life as a story reel, or “animatic,” explains Miss Arnold, who also served as a producer on “Toy Story” (1995). It’s a very rough draft of the film featuring a handful of the voice actors hired for the finished project along with a few supplemental voice actors to flesh out the narrative.

“It’s a visual representation of the script,” she explains. “We can look at the movie all together. You get a really good sense of what the movie really is. We look at it a number of times over a four to six month period.”

She compares the process to workshopping a play.

For monetary reasons such meticulous preparation is crucial in this tech-heavy medium.

“When you actually start doing the animation, it’s so expensive and time- consuming and you can’t afford [having anything on] the cutting room floor,” says Miss Arnold, who worked with Pixar and Disney before joining DreamWorks.

Traditional cell animation affords a similar flexibility in the production process, but often requires more manpower to make any necessary changes, Miss Arnold says.

And with every year come newer, more advanced computers which leave cell animation in the dust. Just check out the reflections on Lightning McQueen’s polished doors in “Cars” for one outgrowth of the faster computers.

The comedy elements in a standard CGI feature tend to make us laugh more than, say, low-brow comedies like “The Benchwarmers.” Miss Arnold cites the slim attention spans of their target audience, the children, for the brisk comic timing.

“You’ve got to get in, make your point and get out,” she says. “The pacing is as important a part of the movie as anything else.”

For some, computer-animated films simply cannot match the emotional subtlety of live-action features no matter how fancy the technological breakthroughs.

Recall 2001’s “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” that rare CGI bomb, which tried to create flesh- and-blood humans from someone’s digitized imagination. The results were, to most observers, soulless.

Perhaps that’s why most computer-generated cartoons avoid reaching for realistic human likenesses, or simply focus on tried and true animated subjects like woodland creatures.

Given the genre’s relative age, it could be that in the coming years the format’s batting average will start to slide down to the live-action level.

For now, Miss Anderson suggests the tight-knit animation community has another reason for trying to make their films a cut above the rest.

“With ‘Toy Story,’ we felt a certain responsibility to make it as good as it could be,” Miss Anderson recalls. “We wanted to open the door for everybody to make these films.”

Most of the animators currently working on CGI films, she explains, started at a time when the medium wasn’t nearly as popular or admired as it is today. “They were doing it because they were passionate about telling stories in this medium,” she says.

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