ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in Culver City, California. You may not have heard of the special effects studio Digital Domain, but I bet you've seen their work.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TITANIC")
BLOCK: They sank the Titanic.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON")
BRAD PITT: (as Benjamin Button) While everybody else was aging, I was getting younger.
BLOCK: They aged Brad Pitt backwards in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COACHELLA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Coachella.
BLOCK: And most recently, their virtual likeness of the late rapper Tupac Shakur performed in concert. "Lord of the Rings," "The Transformers" movies, the eye-popping special effects in these movies all start with geeky, technical conversations that sound something like this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The traversal of the mesh is a real pain in the butt. It's a...
BLOCK: We're listening in on a meeting of the hair, fur and feathers development team at Digital Domain. We're at their sprawling headquarters in Venice, California, a few blocks from the beach.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Are you using the half-edge data structure or not?
BLOCK: These are software engineers and computer graphic artists all trying to solve a pesky problem. Team members have been piped in from Sweden, Vancouver, North Carolina.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Can you count the number of faces you're visiting and make sure that it's actually equal to the number of faces in your mesh?
BLOCK: They've gathered in a cavernous conference area called The Whale. It's a huge wooden structure framed by ribs to resemble the belly of a whale designed by the legendary architect Frank Gehry.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I mean, I think we could modify it, and we could get that information from the exterior derivative matrices that we have.
BLOCK: And now, we get to the problem they're wrestling with.
SHO IGARASHI: Are we talking about, like, the general directionality of, say, fur or feathers? Because if that's the case, then, I mean, a lot of complication gets introduced by the artist.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Absolutely.
IGARASHI: We break stuff.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yeah.
IGARASHI: That's what we're good for: breaking things.
BLOCK: Let me translate here. What artist Sho Igarashi means is that the computer graphic artists will break the laws of physics to get the look they want. They're grappling right now with an upcoming animated film called "The Legend of Tembo," trying to get feathers to behave. And the artists aren't happy.
IGARASHI: It looks like a - I don't know - something that's been hit by a Mack truck, and it's really not - it's like roadkill, and you don't want to look at it.
BLOCK: So here's what they need to figure out.
BLOCK: That's right, de-interpenetration. Interpenetration is bad. It means if you have an animated bird, a digital feather will appear to move right through another one, and it shouldn't. Daniel Lay offers an example. He's a digital hair artist, but he does feathers too.
DANIEL LAY: You know, if I take my two fingers and I, you know, smash them against each other, they'll never go through each other. In the computer world, anything goes through each other.
IGARASHI: A simplified way of looking at it might be that if you're wearing, you know, your sweater over your dress and all of a sudden, for some magical reason, your dress starts to come through your sweater.
BLOCK: That's artist Sho Igarashi again. Now, an animator can adjust those feathers by hand one at a time, but there's a domino effect. You fix one feather, you create problems with thousands more.
LAY: And it's a big problem. And if we don't solve that problem, then people are going to notice. You're going to see those feathers go through. So...
BLOCK: What would that look like? Why would that - what would people see that would look weird?
LAY: People would see - well, you'd be watching this movie, this intimate moment of the two feathered characters talking to each other about something bad about to happen, and then you don't even listen to that conversation at all because you see these feathers. They're just going through each other, and it's just going to be very distracting.
BLOCK: And Digital Domain's creative director of software Doug Roble says...
DOUG ROBLE: You'll see it, and it will drive you crazy. And so that's the computational problem that we really have to follow here.
BLOCK: And that's a really tricky thing?
ROBLE: Oh, it's super hard.
BLOCK: Now, the fix for this dilemma can be found in one mathematical theorem. We'll let Doug Roble explain.
ROBLE: It's a famous theorem. The mathematicians, I think they did it as a joke to make people say it. And I think it's called the Hairy Ball Theorem, and it really is - look it up on Wikipedia...
BLOCK: Source of all knowledge.
ROBLE: Source of all knowledge, exactly. The Hairy Ball Theorem is a very famous thing. You can't comb a sphere flat.
BLOCK: I looked it up on Wikipedia, and it's true: true in nature, true in animation. Take a sphere, cover it with fur or hair and try to comb it all in one direction. You can't do it. You'll end up somewhere with a cowlick, some point where the hairs, the vectors collide, same with feathers. But Digital Domain and Cal Tech have developed software that lets them control the layout and say tuck that cowlick where you won't notice it.
ROBLE: Controlling the direction of things in computer graphics is huge. It's a monstrous thing.
BLOCK: So here's what's so strange. This company, Digital Domain, which has resurrected Tupac from the dead and aged Brad Pitt without makeup or a mask, just computer wizardry, this company is being driven a bit crazy by hair and feathers. And they're looking over their shoulder at the competition. Remember "Tangled," the movie about Rapunzel and her magical hair?
ROBLE: Great hair.
BLOCK: And there's the new movie "Brave" with the feisty Scottish princess and her explosion of curly red hair.
ROBLE: ...has awesome hair.
BLOCK: Not your film?
ROBLE: Not our film, not our film. We are jealous as all get out.
BLOCK: But even though Roble admires "Tangled," "Brave" and the animated bird movie "Rio," he wants Digital Domain's movie "The Legend of Tembo" to give viewers more realism.
ROBLE: What I hope they take away, though, is they look at it and they think, wow, National Geographic. This is - that looks like a real bird until something crazy happens to it. And that's the ultimate goal is just to go, wow, how'd they do that?
BLOCK: Which explains why the artist Daniel Lay is toting around a big coffee table book of bird photographs: "The Audubon Definitive Visual Guide." He's constantly looking at real birds to try to figure out how they work.
LAY: Sometimes I see a duck that's in a pond, and I see them, you know, shake the water off. And I'm like, how do all those feathers come back together, you know? And because if you gave us that shot in a film, that would take us months to finish.
BLOCK: Daniel Lay and Sho Igarashi pull up an image on the computer. It's the character that's bedeviling them, the bird Kichaa for "The Legend of Tembo. Right now, it's a grey, fat, naked bird making wacky human expressions.
LAY: We're spending all our time trying to bring in this realism, and then we're doing it on...
IGARASHI: We're trying that.
LAY: ...something that's totally unreal.
LAY: And so that's where we have these conversations where, hey, what happens with your feather system when, you know, there's this pinching in the corner of his mouth? Or when this chin drops into his fat chest here, what are we going to do with those feathers? Because, you know...
IGARASHI: When he's making an angry look, he's furrowing his brow, and he's, you know, baring his teeth, which birds don't do because they don't have teeth, like other birds.
LAY: Like right here, you can see.
BLOCK: OK. So the bottom part of his bill has just sunk way into his very fat chest?
LAY: Yeah. And so an animator is going to want to have those extreme poses, and we're going to have to account because there's going to be all these feathers in between. How do we de-interpenetrate that?
BLOCK: How do we de-interpenetrate that, keep those feathers from running through each other and do it fast? So where do these artists see the animation industry right now?
LAY: We're still at the tip of the iceberg.
LAY: Even though "Avatar" has come out - I mean, if you look at 10 years ago, "Jurassic Park" was an amazing film that came out, and we thought that's it. That's the best. And then the next year, something else comes out. So the bar keeps getting raised higher and higher.
IGARASHI: It's always a visual effects space race of sorts.
BLOCK: That's Sho Igarashi and Daniel Lay at Digital Domain, a visual effects studio in Venice, California. Their movie, "The Legend of Tembo," is scheduled to come out in 2014. Keep an eye on those feathers.