That the dancing characters on the screen – one real, one computer-generated – seem to move in the same time and space is nothing new. Since Gene Kelly and MGM’s animated mouse Jerry shared the dance floor in “Anchors Away” 50 years ago, audiences have become used to the sight of live and animated characters interacting.
But today, Canal Plus’ Medialab subsid is among the leaders in development of cutting-edge special effects processes. Its real-time animation body suit, which simultaneously transmits the movements of the wearer to a chosen animated alter ego, wowed the industry when it debuted earlier this year. Now it is being put to work.
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During a demo at the Medialab studio, a dancing woman is covered from head-to-finger-to-toe with magnetic sensors that transmit data to a computer every time she moves. On a monitor, viewers see a digitally animated boy who interacts onscreen with the dancer.
But Medialab is doing more than demonstrating this technology: The company is making money with it.
Medialab has been signed to use the suit in production of a number of projects, including a realistic Pinocchio for Francis Ford Coppola; a half-hour computer animated series based on the video game “Donkey Kong”; 3-D computer-generated hosts for children’s television shows in France, Belgium, Germany and the U.K.; and the first-ever 3-D Bugs Bunny for Warner Bros. France.
Computer-generated animation is one sector of French production that has been able to compete outside of Europe, with companies 2001, Pixibox and Animation 2000 rivaling top U.S. firms. In the 1980s, the French government invested in computer animation research and development projects after deciding that the only way a French cartoon industry could compete with Asia and the United States was to cut the expenses of the labor-intensive traditional animation.
Taking t he lead
But it is Canal Plus that has taken the lead among Gallic networks and most other French entertainment companies in translating younger audiences’ craze for glitzy computer related entertainment into actual television product.
The character of Chloe is a perfect example. Big breasted with a deep, silky voice – a punk Jessica Rabbit – she is the computer-generated host of a new daily show about video games on Canal Plus.
As a leotard-clad woman wearing the magnetic sensors acts out Chloe’s movements between two cameras equipped with a motion-capture system, a puppeteer with two sensor-laden gloves controls Chloe’s eyes and mouth in accordance with the character’s prerecorded dialogue. The animation is real-time with no post-production work required, and unlike previous attempts at this kind of animation, the motion-capture system allows Chloe to jump or run in place.
The imaging itself is rendered on one of the biggest Silicon Graphics computer centers in the European entertainment industry, and the system’s simplicity allowed Medialab, after a year of negotiations, to earn a contract to produce the Pinocchio character for Francis Ford Coppola’s upcoming film on the boy-marionette.
“Our technology dramatically cut the costs of the character,” Medialab President Gerard Mittal said.
Medialab’s new series “Donkey Kong,” based on the Nintendo video game, also will use the “performance animation” suit, but has traditional animation artists drawing the characters before they are transposed into digitally malleable forms.
Phil Mendez, who co-drew the feature-length “American Tail” and several television series, already has begun to draw the show’s title character.
But, said Mittal, “Even with the computer graphics, you still need the human being.”
‘Donkey’ for sale
At the recent Mipcom TV market in Cannes, Medialab was shopping around 26 half-hour “Donkey Kong” episodes with a price tag of nearly $400,000 apiece – computer animated half hours usually run from $600,000 to $700,000. The show is slated to debut in September 1996.
Another performance animation character is the 3-D Bugs Bunny for Warner France. The character will probably host another, possibly interactive, show on Canal Plus. Medialab already produces a talking interactive 3-D fish for Nickelodeon in the U.K., and has signed to create similar computer graphics characters for Channel 7 in Germany and for a Belgian network.
Medialab is also slated to open a Los Angeles office to pursue independent productions in the Hollywood community, and said that it has signed a deal with a U.S. TV network for production of a CGI character to host a show. A team of 10 to 15 people is expected to staff the L.A. office.