The owls in the new feature "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" didn't always swoop around the screen in full feather.
They were originally naked black-and-white three-dimensional images on a computer screen.
The man who drew many of the creatures is Jason Baldwin, a 1999 R.A. Long High School graduate who turned his boyhood love of drawing into a career in Hollywood animation.
Baldwin, 29, is a modeler. It's one of the early steps in computer graphics, known in the trade as CG.
Typically, Baldwin is given a drawing or photo of a creature that will be animated. For "Legend of the Guardians," he started with a scan of an actual owl skeleton.
Then Baldwin sits down at his computer and goes to work creating a three-dimensional model.
"My job is almost like sculpting in clay," he said, though his movie work is almost always done on a computer with the Maya program. (He does like to take clay in hand as a hobby.)
When Baldwin's model is done, other CG people add color and clothing, feathers or fur. On "Legend of the Guardians," "modelers worked for months getting those feathers right," he said. Then animators take over to make the birds fly and the mice scurry.
Baldwin was one of three modelers for the film. "I pretty much touched every character in some aspect," he said; the movie's dreadlocked crows "were almost exclusively mine."
Baldwin has worked to animate characters for previous movies, but he prefers modeling.
"Animation is so focused and intensive," he said. "For me, modeling is like an awesome vacation. I put on music. It just makes for a great day, every day."
However, he said, "sometimes you end up working in a bubble." He didn't know much about the story in "Legend of the Guardians" until he saw the movie in a theater. "There were a lot of surprises," he said.
Baldwin has been producing art in some form since he was a boy. He grew up on Germany Creek, the son of Robert and Susan Baldwin, who now live in California.
Growing up west of Longview, "it was isolated, so I spent a lot of time drawing," he said. (He drew upon his family's logging roots when he designed a 3,000-piece sawmill for 6-minute film released last year called "The Mouse that Soared.")
At R.A. Long, Baldwin's art teacher, Janice Newton, was a big influence on him. So was Quentin Robbins, who taught art at Lower Columbia College, where Baldwin was in the Running Start program. Robbins "was incredibly encouraging," Baldwin said. "That made a big difference."
An R.A. Long math teacher was also a big motivator — not that she intended to be. "She took one of my drawings and ripped it up in front of the the class," Baldwin said. "She told me drawing would never get me anywhere."
Still, he vowed to succeed.
After graduation, Baldwin studied graphics at the Art Institute of Portland, earning a bachelor's degree in media arts and animation.
While he was a student, he landed a job at Reality Engineering in Vancouver, making animated versions of such delights as root canals and tooth extractions. The bloodless animations are shown in dentists' offices, rather than videos of the real gory thing.
After college, Baldwin went to work at Laika, a Portland animation studio that was originally Will Vinton Studios.
He worked on a short 2005 film called "Moongirl," then labored on a planned full-length computer-animated feature, "Jack and Ben's Animated Adventure."
Baldwin called that product "a CG buddy movie with birds." However, the film never was completed. "The joke is I spent four years making a movie no one ever's seen" — or ever is likely to, he added.
Baldwin's next stop was working for Animal Logic, an Australian computer animation company that produced "Happy Feet" and the computerized aspects of "Moulin Rouge."
Then, "I spent a fantastic year in Sydney," working on "Legend of the Guardians."
He and his wife, 1998 Mark Morris graduate Janna Kaattari Baldwin, decided to move to Los Angeles. For the past year, Baldwin has worked for DreamWorks Animation, which produced "Antz," the "Shrek" series and "Kung-fu Panda."
Several weeks ago, he transferred to the DreamWorks studio in Redwood City, a suburb of San Francisco. "It's a little bit more Northwest-y," he explained of the move.
At DreamWorks, "I did a bit of work for ‘Shrek 4,' though not enough to get a screen credit."
He's worked on a bonus feature for the "Megamind" DVD (the movie is due out next month) and is currently working on "Madagascar 3," to be released next year. His workload has included "two films that will come out in 2012," but he's not allowed to reveal what they are.
With free breakfasts and lunches and a planned medical facility on campus, DreamWorks is a great place to work, Baldwin said. "It's just ridiculous how well they take care of you. It's the only place I've ever worked where nobody complains about their jobs."
He estimated that approximately 2,000 people work in computer animation jobs like his. "It's definitely a very special skill set."
He thinks the demand will stay steady because audiences want to see "funny, happy, talking-animal kinds of films."
In fact, "you are going to see a lot more CG in films" with human actors, he said. "It's so much cheaper than hiring a stuntman"
Movie technology is approaching the point where computer-generated images can replace live actors, Baldwin said. An example is Gollum in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films.
For now, Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet don't have to worry about being replaced by a computer, however. "We're still a few years away from a complete CG character," Baldwin said.