There is a new breed of animated character coming to primetime television this spring, and the way it’s arriving speaks volumes about the emerging medium of real-time performance animation. When comedian Steve Oedekerk pitched the idea for a show he originally wanted to call “Oedekerk.com” to NBC, he did so in character, literally. Oedekerk enlisted the real-time performance animation specialists at Modern Cartoons of Venice, Calif., and they hooked him up to their custom system of sensors for recording body and facial movements, and then used that motion data to animate a 3-D computer-generated skeleton. As network execs watched in fascination, this animated alter-ego “performed” Oedekerk’s comedy sketches, and in the process got him a deal with the network.
“People come here all the time, get in a body suit and go nuts,” laughs Modern Cartoon animator Chris Walker. The “body suit” to which he refers is a kind of cyber wetsuit rigged with magnetic sensors that track the wearer’s motion. That motion is then applied, in real-time as it is being recorded, to a 3-D model of a character designed inside Modern Cartoons’ computers. If a person in the bodysuit bends over, so does the computer-generated character onscreen. At the same time, a second actor wears head-gear, which optically tracks facial and lip movement, and that data is also applied simultaneously to make the CG character speak. If the show also requires cartoonish effects, like having a character’s eyes bug out, a digital puppeteer on the set adds that motion to the character by manipulating a joystick. Once a satisfactory “take” is achieved, all this motion data is then used to create a fully rendered CG character, which can then be combined with other elements, like human actors in a live-action scene.
Modern Cartoons’ use of this technology for Oedekerk’s project paid off for them as well. The studio will animate four real-time characters for the new show, renamed “steve.oedekerk.com” and scheduled to air next year. Among those characters will be a version of the comedian himself. “It’s not super-real,” explains Walker, “but photo-quality with a wacky comic edge.”
This show, along with an as-yet unnamed political comedy series Modern Cartoons is doing for HBO, illustrates the growing opportunities for real-time performance animation, especially on U.S. television. Until now, most real-time characters have been the province of children’s television overseas, like the “Hilbur” character that Modern Cartoons created for Swedish TV. Except for the character “Moxy,” which Colossal Pictures created a couple of years ago for the Cartoon Network however, real-time characters haven’t had much exposure in this country.
That’s about to change. In addition to the two series being done by Modern Cartoons, Paris-based Medialab recently opened a real-time performance animation studio in Burbank, Calif., and Pacific Ocean Post plans to offer a similar service as part of its new POP Animation division in Santa Monica. Medialab has had about 20 real-time characters broadcast in Europe over the past six years, but according to Medialab executive producer Mackenzie Waggaman, “Medialab realized that to further the opportunities for this technology, it had to be accepted in the Los Angeles entertainment community. The abilities of people in the L.A. market will help drive the use of the technology forward.”
Waggaman believes that real-time performance animation “can open up venues that have been traditionally denied animators because of time or cost. They can put characters on gameshows or weekly series that would never have been possible before.”
While Medialab’s slate of projects includes Nelvana’s “Donkey Kong Country” series, Waggaman sees other opportunities beyond using the technology in broadcast animation. For creating “directable” digital characters on movie sets, for example, the technique “is a valuable production tool, giving directors and actors access to a character that they can see and respond to in real time. Actors won’t have to be visual-effects experts to understand what’s going on and have the proper relationship with a virtual character.”
Medialab has already created such a character with “Broz,” a full-body character animated in real time with the ability to interact with live-action characters on both live and virtual sets.
Walker believes that such real-time feedback “is by far the biggest advantage of the whole process, especially when directors have to make a lot of creative decisions in literally no time. If you can cut the number of shots going to editorial down to a tenth of what you’ve done on stage, you’re saving an incredible amount of time.” He also notes that real-time feedback also makes it possible to essentially “ad-lib animation. Some of our best work was done in 15 minutes!”
But Walker also acknowledges there will be consequences of such developments, including budgetary ones. “While the whole idea of automating this to such an extreme is that you can do better animation, it will probably wind up that people will want more work for less money,” he says.
“The creative community is starting to internalize what they can do with this,” remarks POP vice president Dave Larsen. “People are talking about show concepts based on the premise of having performance animation as a component of productions. This technique will create new types of programming.”
POP’s decision to get into real-time animation is the product of what Larsen calls “several things coming together. Computer graphics is best when you can do it in real time, but we haven’t had this technical capability before. Now the price/performance of the hardware is realizable and the software has reached a level of maturity. We see opportunities in film, television and the Web.”
For pioneers of the medium such as Walker, the current climate means the chance to develop more original content, and do more than simply make available Modern Cartoons’ six performance-animation systems to productions around the world. “We’re really creating another art form, opening up a weird crack between live-action and cartoons,” Walker says. “If it’s used for what it’s good for, I think it will be a huge success in Hollywood.”