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THE BALTIMORE SUN

To see the slickest examples of artificial intelligence, forget the robots of A.I. Instead, study the curvy frame of Aki Ross and her craggy-faced sidekick, Dr. Sid.

Aki and Sid are the virtual stars of Columbia Pictures' Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a cast of super-realistic computer actors.

The movie, which opens today, already is being held up as an example of the cutting edge of computer animation and a giant step toward realizing the effects industry's Holy Grail: creating digital humans so believable audiences can't figure out whether they're real.

"It's like a God complex: Everybody wants to create a living person," says animation director Dan Taylor of Industrial Light & Magic in San Rafael, Calif., who helped create the digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park III.

Whether Final Fantasy succeeds remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The movie's cast is part of an emerging world of digital models and actors - "synthespians," some call them - popping up before our very eyes. These digital people are not only redefining entertainment, but also giving some real-life stars and starlets the willies.

And for good reason. Advertising executives like Mark DiMassimo, whose firm suffered last summer when actors went on strike, are eagerly awaiting the day when they can pull a virtual actor off their hard drive for a Ford spot.

"What can we do without actors?" mused the president of DiMassimo Brand Advertising in New York. "That has become the question."

Until now, drawing on a stable of digital actors who don't strike, don't throw tantrums and don't sue over residuals has remained a dream.

But synthespians are gradually finding more and more work. They're now used as extras, populating the deck of the doomed ship in Titanic, the bleachers in Gladiator, and the Japanese fighters in Pearl Harbor - any place that close-ups aren't a must.

They've also found a niche as stunt doubles, in scenes that would either be too dangerous or impossible to pull off with human actors. In the original Jurassic Park, for example, when the T-Rex plucks the lawyer off the toilet, it's a computer actor we see wriggling in the beast's slimy jaws.

In the modeling world, some binary bombshells are already carving out their own virtual careers.

Before her film debut, Final Fantasy's Aki Ross donned a string bikini (thanks to artists at Square Pictures, who had never drawn her in anything but a space suit) for Maxim's May cover.

Webbie Tookay, another virtual vixen, is also slowly making a name for herself, landing a spread in Details magazine and a starring role in a Nokia ad.

Billed as the first digital supermodel, Webbie was the inspiration of John Casablancas, who founded the Elite modeling agency and discovered the likes of Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. Virtual models, he notes, have some advantages over their flesh-and-blood counterparts.

"Webbie can eat nothing and keep her curves," Casablancas, who has left Elite and started a virtual modeling agency, Illusion 2K Inc., told The New York Times in an interview.

"She can be on time, or in two places at one time, and you know she will never get a pimple or ask for a raise. Sometimes I wish all models were virtual."

Then there's Ananova, the pert, green-haired virtual anchor who reads the news round the clock at www.ananova.com. Since her debut last year, she's been courted by clothing designers, record producers and Hollywood agents.

Some think this is only the beginning. There's talk of computers resurrecting the dead. Coming to a theater near you: a new film starring Marilyn Monroe and Joaquin Phoenix?

Not surprisingly, talk like this has started to worry a few in Hollywood. "My neighbor, who is a stunt man, and I talk about this. He worries," says computer animator Bill Westenhofer of the digital effects shop Rhythm & Hues in Los Angeles.

And it's not just bit players. A-list actors such as Tom Hanks have publicly fretted that the technology might someday put them out of a job. The Screen Actors Guild, meanwhile, is "monitoring" the spread of digital actors, says SAG spokesman Greg Krizman.

But he thinks the issue is overblown. "I worry about a meteor hitting the Earth, too," he says. "Remember, these characters all have voices behind them. So you could argue at this point that it's creating jobs," he says.

The adult film industry - usually among the first to embrace new technology - is equally unconcerned. "The bottom line is, when there's sex involved, people want to see real people," asserts Marci Hirsch, head of production for Vivid Video Inc., one of the largest adult film companies in the country.

And technology may not always be bad for actors. As it becomes possible to create digital body doubles for big stars, savvy actors might license their images to filmmakers so they can sit home and make money.

Or if an actor is called back months after shooting wraps to redo a scene but has put on some pounds in the meantime? Directors could just bring in the digital doppelganger.

Another reason humans aren't likely to go away anytime soon: Even the priciest, most temperamental actors seem like a bargain compared to digital ones.

It took more than 200 animators, programmers and producers from 22 countries to create Final Fantasy. The estimated bill for their four years of labor: $115 million.

"It's so ... cost prohibitive," says Fred Raimondi, animation director at Digital Domain, James Cameron's special-effects shop.

In 1999, Motorola hired Raimondi and his crew to create a digital spokeswoman for a new ad. The result was Mya, who made her debut in a 60-second spot during last year's Academy Awards ceremony.

Mya took several dozen animators several months and nearly $1 million to create. "It takes God nine months to create a human," says Raimondi. "It took us almost as much time to create Mya."

In the end, her creators still had to hire two people - model Michelle Holgate to be the model for Mya and former Beverly Hills, 90210 star Gabrielle Carteris to be her voice.

"At the end of the day, ain't nothing like the real thing, baby," says Raimondi.

"Especially when it comes to supermodels."

Special effects in film

Some of the highlights of technology in film:

1982: Tron (Walt Disney Studios) - The first major computer-animated film, it featured more than 53 minutes of digital FX. Its lame plot, however, made it a flop.

1986: Max Headroom becomes first computer-enhanced pitchman for Coca-Cola. Max is a h-h-hit, eventually landing his own ABC-TV show.

1988: Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak create the first all-digital actor in their experimental short film, Nestor Sextone for President. A year later, they coin "synthespian" for synthetic thespian.

1993: Jurassic Park (Universal) - Its digital brontosauruses and velociraptors often stole the show from the human actors.

1995: Toy Story (Pixar/Disney) - First film created entirely by computer.

1999: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Lucasfilm) - Digital co-star Jar Jar Binks often acts better than co-star Liam Neeson.

2001: Final Fantasy (Square Pictures/Columbia) - First film to feature cast of photo-realistic computer-generated human characters.

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