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Imax Goes 3D in Real-Time

Cyberworld 3D is Imax's next foray into animation. Eric Lurio reports that while the story might not be there, the eye candy makes it all worthwhile.

Wired, one of the cyber critters in Phigs Galleria Animatica in CyberWorld presented by Intel®, an Imax Ltd. Production. © Imax Ltd.

Imax Film Distribution and Spectrum Studios mixed live journalists and a virtual movie star at a September 25, 2000 press junket for Imax's October release of Cyberworld 3D.

It was kind of a cute idea. On one side of the "airwall" there was an empty chair and a camera pointing toward another empty chair, which was in front of a logo saying "Cyberworld 3-D." On the other side of the "airwall" there was a bank of powerful Intel-based computers running a motion-capture program with actors Bob Smith and David Dixon attached. Dixon and Smith would manipulate the arms of a cartoon character named "Wired" that would answer questions from the journalists on the other side of the wall. In other words, the TV journalists would be able to present an interview with a genuine cartoon character on their shows.

So why are they arranging interviews with 'toons? What exactly is this new film?

Phig, the saucy, synthetic hostess of CyberWorld. © Imax Ltd.

Same Thing, New Age

Well, back in 1952, there was a strange documentary called This Is Cinerama!, which introduced a new kind of movie to the American public. The new three-camera process was put on display with a dazzling spectacle of music and color. While computer animation and Imax have been around for a long time, this is pretty much the same thing...a glorified demo reel of some of the best of contemporary CGI with a hackneyed story to stitch things together. Not that there's anything wrong with that, by the way. I am sure many CGI fans will flock to the theaters to see the spectacle.

Our hostess with the mostess is Phig (voiced by Jenna Elfman), a cyberbabe with a perfect torso and an attitude. Her job is to take us on a tour of the CyberWorld Galleria (version 5), a museum of sorts where behind each door is a different virtual world on exhibit, all of which but one has been seen before in other venues -- but none like this.

Jenna Elfman, recording the voice of Phig. © Imax Ltd.

According to producer Hugh Murray, the various shorts had to be partly re-done in order to be shown in the best possible way in the new super-sized format. For instance, Larry Weiss, the CG supervisor of the PDI Antz segment and his crew, had to give Z and Princess Bala feet and lower torsos, which weren't needed in the 35mm version. Also, according to Murray, they had to add several dozen more ants in order to fill the spaces of the immense Imax screen. The rest of the older segments had much the same thing done. "It's expensive," said co-producer Steven Hoban, "but it's a lot cheaper than starting from scratch."

The opening segment, which was done by Spin Entertainment of Toronto, Ontario, introduces us to Phig and the Galleria. Aside from the size of the Imax screen, there's nothing really new here. Colin Davies (3D CGI) and Elaine Despins (2.5D SANDDE animation), who were the overall directors for the film, worked on this and the other connecting sequences. The plot, what there is of it, is that at the end of the second segment Phig discovers in the most painful of ways that a trio of 2.5 D bugs named Frazzled (Matt Frewer), Buzzed (Bob Smith) and Wired (Smith again) are eating the code and degrading the system. After discovering that tech support (Dave Foley) is busy (ain't that always the case?) our hostess goes into warrior mode (after the inevitable bunny suit gag), and near the end of the film manages to send them into a vortex created by Homer Simpson.

Buzzed, Wired and Frazzled swing to safety in CyberWorld. © Imax Ltd.

The Sequences

The bulk of the film, however, is the shorts, which are in no particular order:

Monkey Brain Sushi (1995), directed by Brommbaer and animated at Sony Pictures Imageworks as a showpiece for the SIGGRAPH conference of that year, is quite pretty indeed, but pretty forgettable.

Flipbook (1997-8) by Satoshi Kitihara is a two-minute segment of images taken from two episodes of the Inertia Pictures series and converted for Cyberworld 3D's Imax treatment, and is of a CGI cityscape and flying craft buzzing about looking cool.

Liberation (1994) is a music video by the Pet Shop Boys brought to life by Eye Developments. It's mostly flying heads wearing dunce caps as Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe fly around and sing. While visually stunning, the content is quite forgettable.

Krakken (1996) is directed by Jerzy Kular of Paris' Ex Machina. Unlike the first two shorts, this has something of a story and is reminiscent of the flying whale sequence in Fantasia/2000, which this predates. Based on the work of Dougal Dixon, it's about life in the ocean of the far, far future. Originally six minutes long, it was cut down to four and re-computed and re-rendered for Imax.

Joe Fly and Sanchez (1995, 2000) is directed by Peter Spans of Spans & Partner, which is based in Germany. Now here's a story: Joe Fly is sleeping on a leaf that's cut down by Sanchez, the athletic scarab, in this slapstick comedy about insects, which was highly revised for this film. Mr. Spans knows cartoon physics quite well and it's a cute film indeed.

Tonight's Performance (2000), directed by Paul Sidlo, is the only "pick-up" created specifically for this film. It's basically nothing but a character flying up through a great deal of fantastical circus architecture. It lasts two-minutes and is extremely busy. One can barely make out exactly what's going on before it's over.

Finally, there's the two exempts from much longer works rendered by Pacific Data Images. The first one is the bar sequence from Antz, and the infamous "Homer3" segment from the 1995 "Treehouse of Horror VI" Simpsons episode. This was one of PDI's greatest early triumphs and had to be redone to make the 3D process work properly. This segment doesn't really work as well as it might have, but the use of the cel animation was necessary and unfortunately very obvious...

The Real Big Picture

The package as one of the Imax series is a winner. The forty-minute length is the maximum you can have for a work such as this. There's nothing here but spectacle, and that's why people go to these things.

The use of animation in Imax films isn't exactly new; T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous has been packing them in for quite a while now, and that is quite animation heavy. The same thing can be said for Alien Adventure and Encounter in the Third Dimension. But Imax is high on animation and is already readying several more Imax animated films, among which are versions of Gullivar's Travels and Rumplestiltskin, as well as a thing called Eddy Deco and a special cut of PDI/DreamWorks' Shrek. Whether any of these will do as well as Fantasia/2000 is a question. That's why Cyberworld is so important. The proof is in this pudding.

Eric Lurio is a New York-based cartoonist and writer who has written extensively on animation for several years. His articles have appeared in Animation Magazine, Animation Blast, Animation Planet and Animefantastique.