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December 14, 1999


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A Global Success Story

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Prakash M Swamy

When you have Brendan Fraser ( The Mummy and George of the Jungle) lending his voice to the central character in the animated film, and a slew of other Hollywood veterans, such as Leonard Nimoy, join the cast, how could you keep the production costs low? The average cost for a Hollywood animated film is $ 50 million.

But when one of the producers of Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists also happens to own Pentafour, India's premier computer effects company, the cost can come down dramatically. The movie, the first production venture for Pentafour, has been made for $ 20 million.

The movie will be released soon through Trimark, whose last hit, Kamasutra by Mira Nair, grossed a lusty $ 5 million in the United States and more through video sales.

Guy Stodel, vice president of Trimark Pictures, says: "We are excited to be part of Sinbad, and as a leading independent distributor want to prove to the major studios like Disney that others can do animation too."

Sinbad is the first-ever feature-length film fully animated using the relatively new technique of motion capture. Sets had to be elaborately designed and built using wire-frame materials to allow infrared sensors on the actors to be picked up properly. The sets also had to perfectly match the animated props to ensure an exact picture composite.

Sinbad is the world's first complete real time 3D motion-capture film with a record-breaking 2,500 visual effect shots using the technology.

Motion capture involves having getting a real actor to be a 3D character model while wearing a special suit with reflective markers. Cameras capture the sensor's motion, which is used to make moving models in 3D animation.

The process ensures the 3D models give remarkably life-like performances, including nuances and expressions.

The movie uses two groups of live actors. One group consisted of actors chosen in a large part for their physical attributes. The closer the actors resembled the height and body shape of the characters they were portraying, the easier it is to bring shape to the digital data captured on film. The second group of actors consisted of the voice-over talent, as required in any animated film.

Stunt players and dancers were cast for the live performances because their movements tend to be more stylized and exaggerated.

Pentafour's own proprietary software was used to translate the digitalized motion to the characters. Producer Rajan described this character created as "existing somewhere between a toon character and a real character. The look itself is something that you wouldn't have seen before."

He went further, describing the visuals of Sinbad as "somewhere between photo-realism and animation -- a cartoon with a human look. Stylistically, it's a more digestible way to present fantasy and adventure without being a special effects movie," he says.

He also noted that when humans are being portrayed in animation, things have to be particularly accurate. Audiences know what is real, so facial expressions must be sophisticated and believable," he says.

In recent years several animated films such as Antz and Pokemon, which were not produced by Disney, have scored well at the box-office. Made for about $ 15 million, Pokemon grossed about $ 30 million in Japan, and is headed for a $ 90 million gross in America.

Pentafour is among the increasing number of producers who have entered the animated market, which is still dominated by Disney.

"The fact that nobody else was doing it (3D motion capture) and that somebody was going to do it at some point made us think, 'Why not do it faster, better, and earlier than other people can and leave the world stunned?'," says Rajan.

At Pentafour, work on Sinbad went on round-the-clock because the company has facilities in Los Angeles and India.

"Because digital work can cross boundaries so easily, the idea of a global production studio has become a reality," Rajan says.

The movie was financed by a coalition of investors called the Improvision Group, which produced it with Pentafour.

Pentafour's approach was unique with implications for the future of non-studio computer graphics films.

"The shooting of the motion capture lasted eight intense weeks," says Dr V Chandrasekharan, chairman and managing director of Pentafour Software. "From there, the task of production was placed in the hands of the animators.

"As the story revolves around the sailor Sinbad, special effects pertaining to the movement of the tough and turbulent sea and waves... the underworld, are facets where Pentafour Software has confronted... and achieved a spectacular output," he says.

The majority of the film's production was done at Pentafour's Madras studio, while the bulk of pre- and post-production work was completed at Pentafour's Software studio facility at Los Angeles. The two studios communicated with each other via a direct Hi-band width satellite.

"We looked to motion-capture technology as the only alternative for animating with quality within our time-frame," says G V Babu, head of the research and development unit at Pentafour Software and one of the film's technical directors.

"By using optical motion-capture, we reduced production time significantly. We did very little key-frame work and we reduced the number of frames that we had to render. The process also helped speed up editing because every shot was scheduled as part of the pipeline, so the editors did not have to go through all the stock available -- they worked with scheduled shots only."

V S Sundararajan, director of Pentafour's multimedia division and another technical director of the film, says Pentafour's methodology split the film into traditional -- though sometime unorthodox -- pre-production, production and post- production stages.

"Besides scripting, creating story boards, character design and layout, pre-production also consisted of recording all the voices in Los Angeles and staging a live-action shoot to capture motion-capture data," he says.

Pentafour used an eight-camera motion-capture system from Vicon for most sessions at Raleigh Studio in Santa Monica, California, as well as the company's own in-house, eight camera Motion Analysis system in India.

Pentafour's proprietary Animot Software eliminated much of the traditional hand clean-up and tweaking associated with motion capture, he says.

"We used Softimage and Maya to animate the film, and we imported the motion-capture data into those packages," Babu says. "But since we did this over a year ago, the system we were using were older and we did run into some problems that would normally require lots of painstaking work to fix. By using Animot, we were able to have the computer automatically do the equivalent of key-framing. It essentially blended different captured movements together."

A key aspect in reducing the cost of making the film was India's lower labor costs.

"We created a school to build our animation group called the Digital Imaging Center of India. We collaborated with SGI, which provided the school with hardware, and several other software companies," Babu says.

"They provided software and also experts from the US to train the young artists we found. We gave them 18 months of training before we started the project. That created an affordable talent base for us working under the supervision of more experienced animators."

Pentafour also set up an office in Los Angeles to oversee the motion-capture sessions run by co-director Alan Jacobs, who is referred to as the "live-action" director on the project. Evan Ricks served as animation director.

The film is being marketed aggressively over the Internet through its web site, The site has found advertisement partners in America Online, Yahoo,, PBS Online, Snoopy, Go Network among others.

Demo reels of major companies such as Silicon Graphics, Intel, Softimage and Alias include footage from Sinbad. There is also extensive coverage of the film on the CNN Worldwide cable network, Chandrasekharan says.

Sinbad will be distributed in all international territories by Kathy Morgan International.

Kathy Morgan is the chairman of the American Film Marketing Association, the largest group of independent film and television companies, in the film chambers of Hollywood.

"The cutting edge technology involved in the making of the film and the dedicated team of creative animators are certainly the early announcers for the success of Sinbad. And we are glad to be a part of this pioneering glory," Morgan says.

"Traditionally, animation films targeted at the kids dealt with animals and creatures which did not demand striking differences in its gender, dress, expressions etc. But Pentafour Software, with its state-of-the-art technological background has pioneered the hybrid film with the aid of real human faces, expressions and nuances," Chandrasekharan says.

Chandrasekharan says that Pentafour will go further in the sequel to Sinbad, yet another venture for Improvision Inc.

Pentafour eventually hopes to link up with a major Hollywood studio and develop a relationship similar to the one between Disney and Pixar. Until then, Pentafour has its hands full with completing Sinbad. They are also currently working on a new 13-part motion capture animated series, in partnership with a Japanese comic book company.

"We expect to be a big player in this industry by the end of next year, and the release of Sinbad and the appreciation we hope to get for that will definitely put our name at the top with most other production houses," he says.

Next: Chicago Joins the War On Bidis

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