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For animators, fur is a hairy problem

Pixar Animation Studios really is a magic kingdom, a fun factory so big that workers scurry about indoors on Xooter scooters, and so "Californian" _ the company is in Emeryville, Calif., adjacent to Berkeley _ that one creative man regularly comes to work in combat boots and a skirt.

Pixar has a handful of Oscars (a special one was given to Toy Story director John Lasseter in 1996) that stand in the company trophy case, dressed in Barbie clothes.

The 600 employees enjoy such perks as the skills of staff masseuses, a company restaurant staffed by trained chefs, a soccer field, yoga classes, a gym, basketball courts, a new Olympic-sized swimming pool, assorted video games and foosball tables and a karaoke stage.

Is it any wonder they all seem so happy?

It was this blissful environment that inspired Monsters, Inc., the latest computer-generated, 3-D animation from the minds that created the two Toy Story movies and A Bug's Life.

Monsters, Inc. is a confection in pastels, a funny and charming tale of the nighttime monsters who hide behind children's closet doors. It also boasts some technological achievements that its creators truly hope you won't notice.

The most staggering technical challenge _ and feat _ for the makers of Monsters, Inc. was the purple-spotted blue fur that covers the star scarer, the 8-foot-tall James. P. "Sulley" Sullivan.

Steve May, a former Ohio State University professor with a Ph.D. in computer science, was one of two Pixar staffers charged with researching and implementing a fur program for Sulley. They also developed the program that created hair for Boo, the only "human" character.

"The problem with fur is that, to make it look good with the computer animation, we had to model the individual hairs," said May, who worked on the fur matter for nearly three years. "In the end, we put 2.3-million hairs on Sullivan, and we actually modeled each individual hair. Every single hair has a little piece of geometry in the computer, has a distinct shape that's recorded and moved and lit by virtual lights and rendered in that final image on the film frame.

"We had to do that for every single one of those hairs in every single frame of the movie, which I think is about 100,000 frames. It was daunting. If you think monsters in your closet are scary . . . ," May said, his voice trailing off.

The process was complicated, involving something called "key hairs" that were placed on a "naked" Sulley, hair-growing magic and a brand-new computer hairbrush tool.

"We loaded the character into the tool and used the mouse to pick up the brush that makes these hairs flow in the direction they should go. It's really cool," May said. "We have a great software tools development team that wrote the single-engine software that computes the physics of the motion of things (and) points in space. We can connect those points together and make them hairs or we can connect grids of them and make them into cloth. After we brushed those hairs, we ran it through the simulation software that makes the hair respond to gravity and wind and motion."

The result is a cartoon critter whose silky coat bounces and flounces realistically with his every step. But May doesn't want you to pay any attention to it.

"We just want you to say, "What a great character that looks so furry and lovable.' We don't want to take away from the great story or the actors that the animators created. We just want to add beauty and detail to the film," he said.

Glenn McQueen was the supervising animator on Monsters, Inc. His greatest concern was making little girl Boo believable.

"That was the one thing I was not confident we would do a good job on and that I think turned out really well," he said. "I have a 3-year-old daughter, and I know how the things she does sometimes appear to be completely random, like her brain is full of chaos. I was concerned we wouldn't do justice to that level of frenetic energy."

Luckily, they had Mary Gibbs to voice the squeaky, delightful Boo. Gibbs' father, Rob, is a Pixar story artist.

"She was fantastic and gave us a lot to work with," McQueen said.