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Published Sunday
May 22, 2005

Ex-Omahan breathes life into film cartoon animals

BY BOB FISCHBACH

 

WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER

Terran Boylan has an unusual brain.

Click to Enlarge  
Marty the Zebra (voiced by Chris Rock), Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and plotting penguins share the spotlight in "Madagascar." Omaha native Terran Boylan helped animate the comedy about zoo animals in the wild.

While most people are predominantly left-brain (speech, writing, science, math) or right-brain (creativity, imagination, art, three-dimensional thinking), Boylan possesses a rare balance of both.

That's just what you need if you're a computer animator for DreamWorks, helping to create movies like "Madagascar," a story of zoo animals scared to find themselves in an African jungle. It opens Friday.

Boylan, an Omaha native, is a character technical director (TD) at DreamWorks. He helps program computer controls for a character's movable parts, finding ways to make a cartoon come alive with fluid, natural movement.

  Click to Enlarge
Terran Boylan

Age: 40. Engaged to be married. No children. His father is local abstract artist Dan Boylan. His mother, Mary Dexter, lives in St. Louis.

Born Oct. 13, 1964, in Omaha. In his teen years, he lived near 42nd and Center Streets. Now lives in Glendale, Calif.

Attended St. Pius X and Mason Elementary Schools, Nathan Hale and George Norris Junior Highs, Central High School.

Earned a bachelor's degree in computer engineering, master's in art, both from Iowa State University in Ames.

Hired by DreamWorks as a computer animator in January 2000.

One of his specialties, for example, is hair. In "Madagascar," the 50,000 hairs in the mane of Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) move constantly. Boylan helped develop programming that makes hair react in realistic ways to the character's movements.

"The single most important trait for a good character TD is a balance of technical and artistic skills," Boylan said from his home in Glendale, Calif., last week.

His supervisor, Jeff Light, said those with both skills are rare, and sometimes a bit tortured.

"The real world wants you to become either an engineer or an artist, neither of which is totally satisfying to them. But in DreamWorks' world, you cannot do what we do without both. From all over the world, these dual-skilled people come to us like it's Mecca.

"It's not just that Terran can relate to artists. He is an artist. He has a great eye for composition and color."

Boylan has always dabbled in both science and art.

By age 3, he could read. At age 4, he subscribed to Classics Illustrated comics. He loved to draw.

At Central High School in the early 1980s, while competing in art shows, he was into the math and physics clubs. He also discovered personal computers.

"I was really interested in them from the first moment I could get my hands on one," Boylan remembered. "It was the foundation for the skills I use on a daily basis."

At Iowa State University in Ames, he got a bachelor's degree in computer engineering, but took film and drawing classes, too. Then he got a master's in art, focusing on computer graphics animation.

Almost all the character TDs with whom Boylan works have dual backgrounds: photography and software engineering, sculpting and animal anatomy.

Boylan's first DreamWorks job, however, was more art. As a special effects animator, at the company's northern California campus, PDI/DreamWorks, Boylan created the moment in "Shrek" when the green ogre digs out ear wax and turns it into a candle. He also animated dust blowing off a book cover and being kicked up by Donkey on a forest trail.

"A person watching might not really notice," Boylan said. "But those little effects make a film work."

A Boylan tip: Watch the ear movements in "Madagascar" and how they reflect the emotions of the characters, or even how they jiggle when the animal walks.

Special effects work, though, is a solitary task done in a darkened room.

"Character TD work is much more collaborative," Boylan said. "We can all jump onto a project. I like that kind of interaction."

DreamWorks recently gave Boylan a technical achievement award for his work on two patent applications. One was a gesture-drawing method he invented for articulating character movement. He worked with another character technical director on the second: a wig system for animating hair movement.

"Madagascar" is full of hairy animals. And for them, it's a hair-raising story. Spoiled lifelong residents of New York's Central Park Zoo, they stage an escape that gets them shipped to Africa. Suddenly they have to learn the laws of the jungle.

Other main characters Boylan helped with include the lion's sidekick, Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock) and a hypochondriac giraffe, Melman (David Schwimmer). A crowd scene with furry lemurs was another hairy challenge for Boylan.

It's not just computer science behind the menagerie's movements. It's also anatomy. Boylan said it's important to know the animals' skeletal structures, bone lengths and joints as movements are plotted. Under the skin, there are surprises. For example:

"Even though the giraffe has a very long neck, it still has the same number of vertebrae as humans, seven," Boylan said.

But movies do take artistic liberties. To make the giraffe more expressive, he got a few extra vertebrae, courtesy of the computer.

Boylan's work on "Madagascar" ended last June. Up next: "Over the Hedge," about forest animals who awake from hibernation to find suburbia encroaching (summer 2006) and "The Bee Movie" and "Shrek 3" (2007).

Boylan's is not a glamour job. He met none of the voice stars of "Madagascar." Still, he loves the challenges presented by computer animation. And he's making movies.

"I still have a great deal to learn," he said.

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