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The Making of a Monster
Friday, June 1, 2001

The story of 'Shrek' revolves around the ogre by the same name, whose happy, single life in a swamp is disturbed by the arrival of a throng of fairy-tale creatures who were banished from their home by the evil Lord Farquaad. The story tells how Shrek goes about reclaiming his solitude, and his peaceful swamp, from the motley crew of exiles.
“I worked on the interaction between Shrek and the natural environment,” says the animator, who works for Pacific Data Integration (PDI). The BITS, Pilani and Cornell University computer science graduate co-developed a system for crowd simulation and rendering.

PDI is affiliated to DreamWorks SKG, founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen in 1994. PDI uses its proprietary software tools.

There are several stages in the production of an animated film. A layout team first decides how the characters will be set, and how the camera will be positioned. The motion team then adds expressions, emotions and movements. Lastly, the lighting department adds light effects and texture.

But in movies like “Shrek,” some procedures don’t fit neatly into these divisions. That’s where a technical person like Ramasubramanian and an effects team come in.

“My part would be to use a program to write code, compute and simulate certain effects,” he says. For instance, “Shrek” has fire, smoke, wind and dust. Ramasubramanian says an animator cannot create these step by step. “We have our own software programs to write higher-level programs according to the need of a movie.”

For these, the effects department works from scratch. “For example, I had to work on a shot where Shrek is taking his shower in the mud. All I get is the character making motions as though it’s taking a shower and I have to simulate the mud, render and compass it so that the final outcome is, the character taking a mud shower.”

To integrate characters into the landscapes, Ramasubramanian rendered dust and debris being kicked up, and characters interacting with grass and water. The animator notes that because a film director cannot micromanage every detail, “it is important that the animator is technically well-qualified, and at the same time very creative also.”

Using its award-winning fluid simulation program FLU, the 20-year-old PDI created oozing lava and “fire mud.” Rahul Thakkar, a member of the studio’s research and development team, was a part of the PDI group that created “Antz,” a previous animated film. As a senior member of the R&D division, he focuses on color, film, video, stereoscopic projection, media playback and specialized rendering software.

About 200 people, belonging to various PDI development teams, created tools for crowd creation, character set-up, and cloth simulation.

“I spent two full years working on this project and never felt bored at any time,” recalls Vanitha Rangaraju, the lighting technical director with PDI. On “Shrek,” she led the pipeline development for generic characters and crowds in lighting and surfacing departments.

Apurva Shah was also a member of the lighting team for “Shrek,” supervising the lighting and animation of the movie. “Shrek” was about four years in the making, with actual production taking nearly two years. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson directed the film, which is based on a children’s book by William Steig. Hollywood stars Mike Meyers (Shrek), Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow all lent their voices to the characters. Does it look like a hit? Early reviews are promising. Newsweek calls “Shrek” the “wittiest and most endearing Hollywood animated movie since ‘Toy Story 2.’”

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