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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, October 13, 2000

The world's greatest animator's show off
their talents on gigantic screen IMAX 3-D in

3-D cartoon
is way cool

Bullet Cyberworld STARSTARSTAR
Bullet Not Rated
Bullet Opens today at: IMAX Waikiki

By Burl Burlingame

As a work of art, "Cyberworld" is essentially a package deal, a proof-of-concept production underwritten by computer-chip manufacturer Intel.

It's an electronically animated film presented in both 3-D and in IMAX, so the cartoons are not only bursting out of the screen, they're five stories tall, incredibly detailed and have thunderous sound. Wow. Trippy. Dig the images and try not to pay too close attention to the narrative, because that's the one-dimensional part.

"Cyberworld" an omnibus serving of excellent examples of state-of-the-art computer animation, like the earlier "Mind's Eye" series. The pieces -- which are taken wholly out of context -- are stitched together by an altogether annoying framework featuring Phig, a computerized hostess -- using, alas, only the voice of Jenna Elfman, who's a human cartoon all on her own -- in a kind of gigabyte galleria.

Jenna Elfman is the voice of "Phig," the host
through IMAX' "Cyberworld." Phig segments
are the weakest parts of this visual feast.

Computer animation has been around long enough that it has generated its own cliches. So it's amusing that "Cyberworld," the newest and most mind-blowing example of the craft, recycles hoary images from "Tron," the first feature film to render pictures on a hard disk rather than on celluloid. "Wire-frame" and "texture-mapping" are now part of the language. (Ask your kids.)

The animated films in "Cyberworld" were chosen with a young audience in mind. Violence is kept to a minimum.

Both small and large kids in last night's audience seemed entranced.

The Phig segments are rendered in "traditional" computer animation. These are married to others in a new process called SANDDE, featuring cute li'l animated computer "bugs" causing glitches in Phig's world. SANDDE (Stereoscopic ANimation Drawing DEvice) was invented to make traditional "flat" animation look 3-D, and it does -- amazingly well -- but it's like teaching fish to fly. They can do it, but it's not what they do best.

There are some good moments in the Phig/bugs segments, particularly in the beginning, but they are one big cliche-fest, and so when the film ends, it's woefully anticlimactic.

Part of the problem is the filmmakers are trying to graft a traditional show-of-shows narrative structure onto an art that specializes in a dreamy state-of-consciousness groove, one that delights in pure, whoop-ti-do imagery. Why bother? "Mind's Eye" just let one segment flow into another, which is the way dreams work, and coming back to Phig doing her pseudo-Tron shtick is like being rudely awakened.

The segments, though, oh the segments. Way cool. They include pieces from well-known works like "Antz" and "The Simpsons," commercial fodder like a Petshop Boys video, theme-park productions like "KraKKen," and little-seen masterpieces like "Monkey Brain Sushi," "Flipbook/Waterfall" and "Tonight's Performance."

All of these pieces have been edited so they're not only shorter than the originals, they pad out the Phig/bugs "script." Too bad. Each was designed with its own dramatic logic and arc, and that has been short-changed.

But you're too dazzled to much care. The thing about computer-rendered animation is that it's relatively easy to re-render it to suit another format. In this case, the images were re-computerized with different "lenses" to suit the IMAX screen. Each frame is also rendered twice, from slightly different vantage points -- generally, the distance between human eyes -- to fool the brain into thinking you're seeing object existing in three dimensions.

This is particularly interesting in the retooled segment of "Antz," which is simply terrific. It makes one wish the entire film -- as well as the "Toy Stories" and "Dinosaur" -- were re-released in IMAX 3-D, but the 50-minute limitation of IMAX' film beds would make that problematic, at least without an intermission.

"Cyberworld" is a visually challenging tour-de-force of filmmaking technology, but certain portions are more dazzling than others. One of the things computer animation is particularly good at is dreamy, flying-state tracking movements, in which the point of view drifts effortlessly, like a shadow, through three dimensions, to places unimaginable. The masterpiece within "Cyberworld" is the French piece "KraKKen," a swim in a future ocean populated by oddly mutated species.

The spectacular visual wonder of "KraKKen" makes you hungry for more. Where the process will take us in the future is limited only by our imagination. Barsoom? Middle Earth? Shangri-La? Pepperland? A remake of "Fantastic Voyage"?

"Cyberworld" has its problems, the primary one being that the storytelling stitches are about as subtle as those on Frankestein's forehead. So? It's likely to be remembered as a technological milestone. Depends on where we go from here.

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