In the works

A look at what's up next at Imageworks.

When actors can perform as if they were on a Broadway stage and their movements and facial expressions are used to effortlessly animate digital characters, Sony Pictures Imageworks will have reached the end goal for its performance-capture animation.

Having debuted on 2004's "The Polar Express" and been further refined on Sony's "Monster House," Imageworks' performance-capture technology is currently being used to animate the photoreal and imaginary characters in Paramount's upcoming "Beowulf," helmed by Robert Zemeckis. "We're birthing a new art form in cinema," says Steve Starkey, Zemeckis' producing partner. "We're playing, we're learning, we're exploring -- and having a lot of fun."

According to senior vp and chief technology officer George Joblove, Imageworks already has boosted its performance-capture techniques in two ways. One step has been to increase the number of cameras used to capture motion to 250. But the most revolutionary development, says vp technology Bill Villarreal, is to try to free performers from the clumsy auto-reflective markers. "We're getting away from the auto-reflective materials in the markers and working on image-based techniques to track motion."

The company continues to push artistic and technological boundaries. "Each time I work at Imageworks, we raise the bar," visual effects supervisor John Dykstra says. "You never go into a project expecting to use technology that exists. You have to project what you think will be available when you're doing the work because it's a two-year projection. Imageworks always takes the long view and has always stepped up and come up with a solution."

In addition to improving technology and artistic techniques, Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment president Yair Landau sees synergies for Imageworks in an increasingly digital environment. "As broadband penetration increases and the Web goes more toward video, and with the launch of PlayStation 3 and desktop PCs that are more graphically powerful, you'll see a greater degree of integration between Imageworks and Sony Online Entertainment," he predicts.

Imageworks president Tim Sarnoff notes that the trend toward globalization of the visual effects/animation community will continue to impact Imageworks. "In the next few years, I think the visual effects/animation community will be far more global in its production," says Sarnoff, who lists "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" and "Hotel T" as two upcoming projects from Sony Pictures Animation. "We'll become far more aggressive in reaching out to the global community at large."


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