An animating character: Terran Boylan

BY L. KENT WOLGAMOTT / Lincoln Journal Star

When you see Melman the Giraffe move his neck in "Madagascar," remember that Nebraska native Terran Boylan made it possible for the character to make those gyrations.

The same thing holds true for the mane of Alex the Lion and some parts of Marty the Zebra.

A character technical director for DreamWorks animation, Boylan is one of 20 people who wrote the programs that made it possible for the animators to make the characters move smoothly and naturally. He did the same thing on "Shrek 2," working on the movement of hair.

In the year since he completed his work on "Madagascar," Boylan's been busy setting up the characters for "Over The Hedge," set for release next year, and "Shrek 3," which won't hit theaters until 2007.

Such is the nature of the computer animation business, which requires hundreds of people to collaborate over several years to produce the 90 minutes or so of finished film that turns up in theaters.

"They keep us moving from film to film," Boylan said. "It actually keeps getting better. We put a lot of effort into streamlining the process for character setup. It doesn't get more complicated. But there are a lot of details that are always getting ironed out, getting made smoother and more manageable."

Boylan, an Omaha native who joined DreamWorks in 1990, worked on "Shrek" as an effects animator, then did a little work on "Madagascar" before making Donkey's hair move the way it should in "Shrek 2." In "Madagascar," he worked on the lead characters for the first time and put to use much of what he and others had learned in the process of making "Shrek."

"It's a very interesting challenge," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "The demands of the different stories are always different. We had developed a wig system for ‘Shrek 2.' We used it on ‘Madagascar' and ‘Over the Hedge,' but with each of those films the capabilities expanded."

Sometimes those capabilities are determined by demands created by the story. Such is the case with Melman the Giraffe. The first shot of the character that Boylan worked on had Melvin upside down in a crate — not exactly the usual picture of a giraffe.

"A lot of the motion controls for his neck came out of that very early on — so his neck could bend and have the sharp angles and yet could be smooth and move naturally," Boylan said. "Once we had that, it was easy to put the rest of the motion together."

Boylan's work comes out of his lifelong interests. A 1983 Omaha Central graduate, Boylan studied computer engineering at Iowa State and then stayed in Ames and got a master's degree in art in 1990.

"I wasn't able to get my hands on a computer until I was 9 or 10, but I definitely had an affinity for computers," he said. "I also always liked to draw. This way, I get to combine those two things. When I was 10, the job I have now didn't exist. But it certainly was a natural fit."

Boylan worked for Engineering Animation, an Ames firm, for a decade before joining DreamWorks, where he's part of a team of more than two dozen people that handled character technical direction.

"It's very collaborative," he said. "The way our setups are, they're very complex. So one person works on the face, one person on the body, one on the hair and so on. The master setup for the giraffe was a massive task."

Boylan hadn't seen "Madagascar" when I spoke to him earlier this month. But he was looking forward to seeing the movie, more like a fan than one of its creators.

"The first time I watch to see the film and how it ended up," he said. "I see bits and pieces of the film in different stages. But I don't see them put together. My perspective is from the assembly line floor. I don't know how it's coming together, like the editors or directors do. So I watch it just to see it, like everyone else."

But Boylan said he's seen enough of "Madagascar" to know that he and the rest of the audience are in for a treat.

"From what I've seen, I think it's a wonderful film," he said. "They did a great job doing the characters. It's different than ‘Shrek,' but it's just as visually rich as the ‘Shrek' movies. And it's fun, too. I'm very proud of the work I've done on the different films, but especially ‘Madagascar.'"

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.