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Originally published May 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 12, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Animators expand their lines of work

In a dark room inside NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Koji Kuramura is giving space exploration the show-biz treatment. The 41-year-old animator once...

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — In a dark room inside NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Koji Kuramura is giving space exploration the show-biz treatment.

The 41-year-old animator once guided the starship Enterprise when he helped craft "Star Trek" episodes. Now he's building a virtual launch pad for the Phoenix rocket that will blast off in August to survey Mars' polar ice caps. His

.work will be part of a five-minute computer-animated film.

"Our job is to bring some Hollywood pizazz, the wow factor, to everything we do," Kuramura said.

Throughout Southern California, digital artists weaned on Walt Disney, "Star Wars" and video games are bringing their wow factor to scores of companies outside of entertainment that have discovered what a powerful business tool computer animation can be.

Not just entertainment

Once, if you were an animator, you pretty much worked in movies, TV, commercials and video games. Now 55 industries nationwide use digital artists, a study by Los Angeles-based Entertainment Economy Institute found.

"Whether you're showing how a new heart valve works in 3-D, or how the rover landed on Mars, you're using the same skills and in many cases the same software tools that are used to make 'Spider-Man 3' or 'Happy Feet,' " said Kathleen Milnes, who co-authored the study funded by the Los Angeles Community College District.

As the premier training ground for animators, Southern California is creating a rich talent pool spreading to such diverse fields as aerospace, toy manufacturing, forensics and biomedicine.

Toshiba Medical Systems in Orange County uses animated videos to train people to use MRI scanners. Toyota Motor's design center in Newport Beach employs digital artists to create an online car catalog. Mattel in El Segundo uses animation in designing toys.

Animation once involved scores of workers who painstakingly drew and colored cels. Today, low-cost computers and enhanced 3-D software enable an animation studio to fit on a desktop, fueling a boom in the genre that has extended well beyond major Hollywood studios.

Typifying today's independent animator is Eric Keller, 37. He works from a cramped, one-bedroom Hollywood apartment where he runs a one-man company called Bloopatone that specializes in scientific applications.

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Keller is helping researchers at Harvard Medical School see how the HIV virus hijacks human cells. On his computer, Keller is rigging a 3-D image that looks like a Christmas decoration gone haywire, a swirl of interlocking red, green and yellow ribbons, to simulate a strand of the virus.

"I feel like this work is extremely important," Keller said. "It's helping scientific progress."

"Real science"

Zareh Gorjian, JPL lead animator, first met Kuramura several years ago, when he needed help replicating the crinkles in the gold foil for the Odyssey spacecraft. He recruited Kuramura last year.

"I went from science fiction to real science," Kuramura said

With two or three missions a year, JPL now has 10 animators. The missions require short films to help sell them to Congress and show the public what will be accomplished.

JPL's animators use images and data transmitted from spacecraft to create short films of Martian terrain or the gaseous rings of Saturn. "They're helping us visualize these other worlds that we haven't visited yet," said Eric De Jong, principal investigator with JPL.

When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter returned images of a giant crater, Kuramura and his colleagues made a short film giving a bird's-eye view of its striking gullies, possibly created by past water flows.

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