Animation tech fuel injects playfulness of preschool fare

the preschool TV series Jay Jay the Jet Plane, explains how animation...
May 1, 1999

the preschool TV series Jay Jay the Jet Plane, explains how animation

technology is giving a warmer face to preschool programming

Ten years ago, animation was rarely seen in preschool programming, due to its high costs. Back then, programming for the younger set was dominated by low-budget puppet and costumed live-action formats. ‘Why spend big money on very young children who are easily entertained? And worse, there’s no chance to recoup huge production costs!’ was the popular school of thought. Of course, in 1989, people also thought Milli Vanilli was an incredibly talented musical group. We’ve all learned a lot since then.

In recent years, several preschool series have proven to be big television, home video and licensing successes. In fact, producers are now clamoring to turn out the next big toddler TV hit. To stand out in a crowded market, producers have turned to animation technology to give themselves a competitive edge. As a result, the preschool market has grown into a showcase for some of the most technologically innovative, highly produced shows on television.

The success of programs such as Nick Jr.’s Blue’s Clues and Disney Channel’s Rolie Polie Olie proves that children-and their parents-are interested in seeing new and innovative technology, and portends a changing economic model for preschool programming.

What’s interesting about this new breed of preschool programs is how they use the technology. While theatrical releases often use computer-generated animation to create out-of-this-world, bigger-than-life aliens, asteroids and light-speed space battles, these preschool series, ironically, use computers to create warm, simple, play-like environments. The goal of technology in preschool shows is to amplify the toy-like aspects of the characters to visually support the simplistic stories being told. Technology is merely a means to an old-fashioned end.

Jay Jay the Jet Plane’s content and show format

We strive to achieve this delicate balance between advanced animation technology and engaging storytelling in Jay Jay the Jet Plane, a co-production between PorchLight Enter-tainment and Modern Cartoons, both located in L.A. Based on the characters created by David and Deborah Michel, Jay Jay airs weekdays on The Learning Channel at 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

Employing revolutionary, real-time, performance animation (also known as digital motion capture), the show introduces us to seven charming airplane characters, including Jay Jay, the inquisitive, preschool-aged star of the show. Story lines center on Jay Jay and friends learning life lessons above and around their Tarrytown Airport home.

The airplanes’ ‘faces’ can express a wide array of human emotions ranging from subtle mood changes to ebullient joy, because dialogue within the show is performed by actors wearing complex camera headgear called ‘face trackers.’ Created by Modern Cartoons, the face trackers capture actors’ facial movements and directly attach them to the faces of 3-D animated characters. Thus, the fluidity and natural expressiveness of a human being are translated directly to the ‘face’ of an airplane, a feat that’s impossible to achieve with puppetry or traditional cel animation.

To add further dimension, Jay Jay uses realistic miniature set environments such as lakes, deserts, mountains and meadows as backdrops over which computer-animated characters interact. Finally, a live-action airplane mechanic, Brenda Blue, is videotaped separately on green screen background, then composited into scenes.

The pluses of technology used in multimedia production

Although it was a challenge to combine Jay Jay’s different media, the use of real-time performance animation greatly increased the speed at which animation was produced. We were able to create approximately 11 minutes per day, and, in creating animation so quickly, production costs are often greatly reduced. There is no need for retakes in the traditional sense of the word, since you see what’s being laid to tape as it’s being performed.

Given how quickly the animation was produced, and considering we were using this particular real-time animation technology in full-series production for the first time, it’s natural to assume that there were sacrifices in quality. In fact, the result was just the opposite! The toy-like quality of the plane designs, along with their humanistic expressions, enhanced the look of the series so dramatically that the production values were heightened.

Even though preschool programs are undergoing technology-driven ‘face-lifts,’ when it comes right down to it, they are moving forward while staying rooted in elements of the past. Good storytelling, game-playing and interactivity may come in different-looking packages, but, hopefully, we, as producers, will strive for a certain level of clever simplicity that never goes out of style. Unlike the music I was listening to in 1989.

Andrea Tompkins is a producer at L.A.-based PorchLight Entertainment.

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