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Geek Trivia: Pretty as a pixel

What was the first photorealistic, fully computer-animated character to appear in a major motion picture?

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This Friday, on Nov. 5, 2004, Pixar Animation Studios' latest fully computer-generated imagery (CGI) motion picture, The Incredibles, will debut in U.S. theaters, and it's worth looking at a pair of trivial tidbits that make this film different from previous Pixar and other all-CGI efforts.

To begin, this is Pixar's first film to receive higher than a G rating, having earned the only slightly less innocuous PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Second, with a running time of roughly 115 minutes, The Incredibles is also the longest all-CGI motion picture ever produced.

When Pixar's Toy Story broke ground in 1995 as the first fully CGI animated feature, a cluster of (then) high-end computers took 800,000 hours of processing time just to conjure up 81 minutes of finished movie. But less than 10 years later, the idea of a nearly two-hour CGI film is so unimpressive as to barely deserve notice. Similarly, the fact that Pixar has left the shackles of G-only storylines behind is an expected step on the path of CGI feature maturation, so much so that almost no one seems to care.

For the sake of perspective, however, it's important to remember that CGI animation evolved not as an end unto itself, but merely as a another tool to aid conventional live-action filmmakers constrained by the physical realities of in-camera, stop-motion, and model-based effects. More than two decades later, the most flagrant recent example of this intention is the recently released Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a motion picture filmed entirely on blue-screen sets, with the actors and their costumes representing the only major non-CGI elements of the film.

And so we come to the last great hurdle to creating a completely computer-rendered photorealistic movie—people. Lord of the Rings' Gollum, Star Wars' Jar Jar Binks, and Terminator 2's T-1000 represent the most famous in a nearly 20-year-old tradition of all-CGI photorealistic characters, but none of them would be confused with an average, everyday human character.

Despite all of its advances, CGI characters are not that far removed from the first all-CGI "actor" to appear in a major motion picture.

WHAT WAS THE FIRST PHOTOREALISTIC, FULLY COMPUTER-ANIMATED CHARACTER TO APPEAR IN A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE?

What was the first completely computer-generated photorealistic character to appear in a major motion picture, serving as the digital ancestor to such startling CGI triumphs as Terminator 2's T-1000, Star Wars' Jar Jar Binks (a technical triumph, if not an artistic one), and Lord of the Rings' Gollum?

In 1985, a slew of Hollywood heavyweights teamed up to produce the family-friendly and largely forgotten movie Young Sherlock Holmes, in which a reimagined teenage detective squares off against a stained glass window come to life in the shape of a menacing medieval knight. The so-called "stained glass knight" was the first fully CGI photorealistic character ever created, which, despite its awkward name, holds a highly impressive Tinseltown pedigree.

Young Sherlock Holmes can claim Steven Spielberg (ET, Jaws, Jurassic Park, etc.) as its executive producer, Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam) as its director, and Chris Columbus (Gremlins and The Goonies) as its writer. Given the amount of talent behind the film, it comes as little surprise that something groundbreaking came out of the production, even if the movie itself wasn't all that remarkable.

The real tip of the cap, however, should go to a man you probably haven't heard of—even though his work is pretty famous: John Lasseter.

It was Lasseter who designed the "stained glass knight" effect for Industrial Light & Magic. And even if that were his only major computer animation credit, he would still be worthy of a footnote in CGI history. Of course, his story doesn't stop there.

Lasseter is a cofounder and executive vice president of Pixar, and he's one of the great pioneers of computer-generated imagery. He directed the first two Toy Story films as well as A Bug's Life, and he has produced, written, directed, and/or helped animate nearly all of Pixar's major productions, including the company's debut and signature short film, Luxo Jr.

Not bad for a guy who chose to work for Steve Jobs (Apple cofounder and Pixar CEO) over George Lucas (the guy who let Lasseter and his fellow CGI pioneers leave Lucasfilm without a fight). It's just the sort of story that makes up the best Hollywood dreams—and good Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble harkens back to the Sept. 28 edition of Geek Trivia, "Low and behold." TechRepublic member Swstephe was kind enough to supply some additional calculations and observations that the original article foolishly left out—mostly because yours truly isn't bright enough to do the math.

"Just to clarify a bit, a hertz is once per second. The low end of human hearing is 20 Hz; the high end is 20,000 (at birth, getting worse with each rock concert). A middle A [note] is 440 Hz. 10 MHz would be supersonic, not subsonic.

"B-flat, 57 octaves down on the scale, means to take middle B-flat (about 466.16 Hz) and divide it in half 57 times. That is 1/2^57. That gives a frequency of 3.23e-15 Hz, or one wave about every 3e14 seconds or about [every] 10 million years. Additionally, since most electronic devices run at 60 Hz (about halfway between A-sharp/B-flat and B), you could claim that your toaster is in harmony with that Black Hole (when it is on)."

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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