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Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014
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Digital characters blur with reality in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’


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Marvel Studios has consistently dazzled since 2008, rolling out one superhero, comic book-based epic after another, but nothing quite like “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

The film, opening Friday, asks fans to identify with, embrace and emotionally invest in a genetically-enhanced raccoon named Rocket and a tree-like alien named Groot.

The characters are voiced by two of Hollywood’s leading actors, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively, but neither man ever appears on screen.

Rocket Raccoon and Groot are 100 percent computer-generated creations, and it’s a safe bet that few people will think twice that they’re not real.

The computer animation on display in “Guardians of the Galaxy” is just the latest example of an increasing trend in Hollywood where completely digital characters take center stage and capture the hearts and imagination of audiences.

“I think the implications of what it can mean for the future of filmmaking is limitless,” said Marcus Scarsella, Course Director for Character Design and Creation in the Computer Animation degree program at Full Sail University in Winter Park. “With technology now, imagination is our only limit. I think technology has given us superhuman powers to create.”

What began in the 1950s, the first decade of Ray Harryhausen stop-motion creatures, evolved into the dizzying whirl of video game colors and visuals displayed in 1982’s “Tron,” and finally cemented its place in mainstream movies with the introduction of velociraptors and the Tyrannosaurus rex in “Jurassic Park.” The advent of computer-generated imagery has been on a steady climb, but in the past 13 years, the technology has become increasingly prevalent. Directors such as James Cameron used it to create Pandora, a new world, and Peter Jackson took it to new heights when he brought J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth to vibrant life.

In “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jackson introduced fans to the wonders of motion-capture, digitally creating a central character, Gollum, by filming an actor, Andy Serkis, performing the role in its entirety. It was an iconic moment in computer animation.

Antonia Wilson, 41, of Ruskin grew up loving Harryhausen, and she credits the late visual effects maestro with paving the way for today’s movie magic. One of her favorite digital characters is Gollum, but she said she has enjoyed and gotten lost in several films that incorporated the technology, such as 2007’s “Beowulf.”

“I swear I’m educated, (but) I had no clue I was looking at a completely CGI movie until about half way in,” Wilson said. “That’s when it’s good. When you find yourself questioning what is real and what isn’t.”

Serkis has become the go-to performer for motion-capture and computer-generated technology, creating not only Caesar the ape in both “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and this summer’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which has grossed more than $152 million, but also King Kong in Jackson’s 2005 remake.

Audiences believed Serkis’ Kong was a real giant ape, lovesick over a human girl and willing to risk his life to protect her. The performance, and the character, wowed 37-year-old Tampa resident TJ McDonnell.

“As the credit rolled the first time I saw it,” McDonnell said, “I thought ‘Damn you Jackson for making me cry over an imaginary monkey.’ ”

The technology is capturing the hearts of artists as well.

Full Sail University has 1,000 students enrolled in its Computer Animation Bachelor of Science degree program, both on-campus and online, according to Casey Tanous, the university’s public relations manager.

At least one Full Sail graduate, Laurie Brugger, appears in the credits to “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Brugger, who works in London at Framestore, one of Europe’s largest visual effects companies, served as a lead character rigger. Tanous said Brugger also was instrumental in creating Dobby, the beloved, wholly digital house-elf, in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One.”

Computer generated imagery, or CGI, is actually the combination of several artistic disciplines, according to Scarsella, who attended Full Sail University with Brugger.

Scarsella, 38, is a modeler, the first step in the process. Modelers take a piece of artwork and build it into a computer program, a “body without bones,” he said.

A set-up artist, or rigger, then takes the computer model and gives it the ability to move by incorporating bone structure and joints. Finally, animators give the creation life. “They’re the ones that make it move,” Scarsella said.

Other artists contribute by providing realistic colors, facial features, skin textures or lifelike fur, in the case of Rocket Raccoon.

“There’s so many elements that have to come together,” Scarsella said. “All that has to work or it can really hinder the success of an asset.”

In “Guardians of the Galaxy,” writer-director James Gunn takes Marvel Studios to space, exploring a vast universe previously only hinted at in “The Avengers.” In the story, a rag-tag band of misfits, thieves and mercenaries have to overcome their differences to save a planet much like Earth from the power-mad Ronan the Accuser.

The film, when first announced, was considered a risky project. The original “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic, introduced in 1969, was never a resounding success like titles that inspired other popular Marvel film franchises, “Iron Man” and “Captain America.” The current lineup, which is featured in the movie, consisting of Peter Quill, Rocket, Groot, Gamora and Drax the Destroyer, was introduced by Marvel in 2008.

Gunn, however, has created something magical. The Tampa Tribune saw a sneak preview of the film prior to Friday’s release, and can report that it is the best Marvel Studios movie to date, on par with, if not better than “The Avengers.”

For fans of computer animation, films such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” showcase the best that technology can offer, and they tease the potential for even greater visual wonders yet to be unveiled.

“One of the difficult things, as a modeler, I don’t get to really see the final creation sometimes until it’s on screen,” Scarsella said. “When you see it, and the audience reaction, it can be almost overwhelming. It can bring you to tears.”

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