ABC hopes for virtual success

High-Tech puts Disney's 'One Saturday Morning' on a real-time, digital set

Emmy-winning animation producer Peter Hastings admits “I didn’t really know what I was talking about” when he suggested to Walt Disney and ABC officials early this year that ABC utilize virtual sets as the foundation of its Saturday morning cartoon block.

“Disney and ABC had been looking for a way to frame Saturday morning to make it look different and set it apart from programming on other networks,” explains Hastings. “I thought of basing the show on the concept that Saturday mornings were different from the rest of the week, with each day represented by a special building. They liked the idea, but then I said, why don’t we use virtual sets? Later, I thought, what was I talking about? I realized I didn’t really know very much about virtual sets.”

But, as Hastings says, “the learning process is an ongoing progression.” He and the rest of the creative team behind Disney’s “One Saturday Morning” are now deep into that process as they produce “Morning,” a new “wrap-around” show that debuted this month and runs 2 1/2 hours each Saturday morning, leading in and out of three Disney animated series and rotating bits and interstitials.

So far, the lessons are going well, as they have managed to successfully launch and produce what is probably the most extensive, ongoing use of virtual sets ever seen on U.S. television. Their virtual set utilizes 3-D animation and effects that are inserted into the program in real-time, thanks to a unique production model. Perhaps most impressively, they have accomplished this less than three months after beginning pre-production and less than seven months after Hastings, the show’s executive producer, first had the idea.

Hastings hunted for a team that understood virtual technology, hiring Karen Murphy to produce the show and Prudence Fenton as consulting producer. Fenton in turn made contact with Paul Lacombe of POP Animation, a virtual set veteran and now the show’s CG supervisor, who recently joined POP as part of an effort by the company to grow from being a post-production house into a completely digital studio. Lacombe sifted through the various virtual technologies available before focusing on Accom Inc.’s system, which he says was the most production-friendly system available for attempting virtual sets in real-time. POP promptly hired Accom to provide technology and support for “One Saturday Morning,” and is so happy with the results that the company is currently negotiating to buy Accom.

On the day of Variety Junior’s recent visit to the virtual set at a stage in Culver City, about a dozen young actors are jumping around (“we’ve essentially hired them to play all day,” says Fenton) on a completely green-screened set that, in actuality, is 65 feet wide by 25 feet long and 30 feet deep. But on the show, it appears to be three separate, colorful rooms in a building of mammoth proportions — 350 feet by 150 feet and 130 feet total, or “about as big as Grand Central Station,” according to Lacombe. The youngsters have real props to play with, but where they play is being completely digitally inserted into the episode in real-time as filming takes place……

Under control

Accom’s Michael Bauer, the virtual set’s technical manager, seems oddly relaxed during filming of this particular segment. By monitoring the filming and pressing a few buttons, he puts the young actors into the show’s “Cereal Room” (the other rooms are “The Main Hall” and “The Control Room”), where they romp under a huge, spinning cereal bowl, or walk around a huge toaster, avoiding virtual bubbles, walls and columns that aren’t really there.

Bauer can afford to be relaxed because the show’s production method gives almost total control to the director and cameraman. That’s because the real and virtual cameras are linked through special technology called Thoma sensors, devices that are mounted on three real cameras that allow the virtual camera to analyze the exact movements of the real camera, such as zooms, pans and tilts. That data is then fed to a computer in the (real) control room, where it correlates the information to identical movements and positions in the virtual world. Thus, through the Thoma connection, the virtual camera can essentially duplicate the exact movements of the real camera, giving the director total control over the shoot as it happens. During filming, Ballard therefore needs only to monitor the shoot and simply wait for director cues as to which pre-designed virtual set to load and then activate. He also has the ability to trigger special effects on the sets whenever the director wants them.

“The hard work and expense was mainly in pre-production,” explains Lacombe. “We had to create the 3-D animation and design and develop the set, based on Peter’s drawings. Each day of filming, we have to load the animation into the computers and rehearse and block out sequences with the actors, director and camera people. But once filming starts, it’s pretty relaxed, because we have the Thoma technology. So angles and motion are directed just like a normal production. The 3-D sets are designed in advance, but then can be utilized in whatever way the script and director call for in real-time.”

Currently, producers are working on 20 episodes. The program begins with a sophisticated opening piece of pre-packaged, 3-D animation done lithograph style, also created by POP’s animation team, which “visits” each day of the week before “entering” Saturday. During the 2 1/2-hour block, the segments then introduce Disney shows “Brand Spanking New Doug,” “Disney’s Recess” and “Pepper Ann.”

“One Saturday Morning” also features regular segments of programming shorts, including “Manny the Uncanny,” a roving reporter who also hosts the overall program; “The Monkey Boys,” a slapstick comedy team; “Mrs. Munger’s Class,” animated pictures from a grade-school yearbook; “What’s Up With That?” an educational segment; and “Great Minds Think For Themselves,” short animated history lessons, hosted by Genie of “Aladdin” fame, and featuring the voice of Robin Williams, who originally created the character. The Monty Pythonesque animation of “Great Minds” was created by Disney, along with the three regular cartoon shows, and POP is responsible for all other animation on the show.

Although the tools being used are among the most sophisticated and expensive around, and “many didn’t even exist back in January,” says Hastings, they are, after all, still tools. And that is why Hastings emphasizes the show’s creative elements are what will eventually decide its fate.

“If you have a hammer,” he says, “it’s about what you are making with that hammer. It’s not about hammers. And that’s true of this show.”

Fenton agrees. She claims it will not be easy for the casual viewer to tell how virtual the virtual set is. Admittedly, that is thanks to sophisticated technology, but those advances in turn mean the creative bar can and will be raised during creation of entertainment in the next century. And that, says Fenton, is the real point.

“What is being delivered even now is believable and affordable,” she says. “You can believe these environments, and that means writers are going to try all sorts of things. It’s only a matter of time before everything gets completely whacked out.”