Nickelodeon has big plans to introduce its reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise during Comic-Con with a virtual-reality experience that will put journalists and some lucky superfans directly into the show’s animated universe to chat live with two of the Turtles, Donatello and Michelangelo.
The “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Live” experience, set for Friday, July 20, is the latest project from Nickelodeon’s cutting-edge Entertainment Lab, which launched last year to experiment with new and emerging technologies and broaden entertainment options for Nick’s audiences.
“It’s really fun,” says Chris Young, senior VP of Entertainment Lab. “There’s a great moment when you realize you’re fully immersed inside of the Turtles’ universe. The characters that you know really well are right in front of you, and you can have a conversation with them.”
The team has constructed a green-screen cube, which is where users will put on HTC Vive VR headsets and immediately find themselves in a stylized New York street scene.
“The idea is that the person will be in the Ninja Turtle reboot universe,” explains Young. “A camera is filming the journalist and compositing them live in real time into the environment. They’ll have a big Nickelodeon cartoon avatar head that can be chosen ahead of time.”
It’s quite a setup behind the scenes, with several high-powered gaming computers, video and audio technicians, and a team of puppeteers making the Turtles move while the actors respond to the reporter’s or fan’s questions. Josh Brener, who voices Donatello, and Brandon Mychal Smith, who plays Michelangelo, will be on hand at Comic-Con to interact with users in real time. The puppeteers are stationed so they can watch the actors as they improv and create the animated performance.
“We’ll be able to switch between different shots as the interview is happening,” says Young. “We can cut between all those things. That’s the technical side. Then there are some really interesting things happening on the audio side in order to create the proper delays and have everybody talking in sync. That audio is driving the character animation. The big idea is that we should have a little video package to hand to people when they’re done with their interview.”
The Entertainment Lab team worked with Adobe Character Animator, Epic Unreal Engine and NewTek NDI to create the VR experience. And this is just one of a number of projects the experimental lab is working on. “This built on a lot of stuff that we’ve been doing in the lab over the last couple of years, specifically around this virtual cinema, mixed reality, VR pipeline,” Young says.
Earlier this year, the team debuted Nickelodeon and Imax’s SlimeZone, a multi-player social virtual-reality experience at Imax VR Centers as well as a 360-degree episode of Nick’s popular animated series “The Loud House.”
“A lot of that fundamentally applied to what we’re doing here,” Young explains. “A lot of it was copying and pasting over a curve that we had already implemented. Then it was just refining it to do exactly what this needed to do, which is stream these puppets into a VR environment and still have the mixed-reality live component.”
This is just the beginning for the Entertainment Lab. “It’s still very early days in all this technology, whether it’s VR or AR or mixed reality,” Young says. “A lot of what we do in the lab is experiment around those areas. We’re fortunate to have access to iconic IP, so there are things like the Comic-Con experience with the Turtles that just feel right.”
And Nickelodeon is not at a loss for content to bring to new platforms. “You can see how easy it is for us to take our properties and put them into these new platforms and be able to share them as far as the new technology allows for it to be shared,” Young says.
And Nick’s young viewers will be the beneficiaries. “We’re always interested in being where kids are,” Young says. “We know they have a passion for these kinds of things, so we want to bring them as many opportunities to connect with our brand as possible.”