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PossibleWorlds revolutionizes toon production with ‘live’ animation technique

Using a Macintosh-based animation technique in which traditional cel drawings are scanned into a computer, then used to create a database wherein animated characters can be digitally manipulated like puppets, PossibleWorlds Real Time Animation studio has drastically shortened the time it...
October 1, 1999

Using a Macintosh-based animation technique in which traditional cel drawings are scanned into a computer, then used to create a database wherein animated characters can be digitally manipulated like puppets, PossibleWorlds Real Time Animation studio has drastically shortened the time it takes to create a toon. For instance, Noggin’s Phred on Your Head show, which debuted July 26, was on the air just seven weeks after the initial discussions about the project took place between PossibleWorlds producers and Noggin creative director Amy Friedman.

First creating a library of movements and expressions, including walk cycles, eye movements and turn-arounds for each character, animators use simple MIDI controllers to animate the cartoon characters in real time. ‘Once a character is rigged and turned into a digital puppet, we can create low-cost, high-speed animation with the look and feel of traditional cartoons,’ says Michael Ferraro, PossibleWorlds creative director. After a character is ‘built,’ new props and backgrounds-even episodes in different languages-can be introduced with little interruption to the rapid, real-time animation process. Lip sync is achieved through a voice-activated phoneme-recognition system wherein sounds on the voice track trigger corresponding lip movements according to a preexisting speech model for the character. This real-time voice feature means the system can also be used to create animation for live events, such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, in which PossibleWorlds created a ‘live’ Beevis and Butthead to host the event.

While Phred on Your Head involved an animated character who sat on the head of the child host and interacted with him, therefore having the distinct look of real-time animation, other PossibleWorlds projects resemble traditional cel. ‘The viewer would never know it wasn’t regular cel animation,’ Ferraro says of an MTV show called MTV Station Zero he did in March. The preproduction process on such shows is very intense, says PossibleWorlds cofounder Janine Cirincione, but once production begins, animation can be laid down to tape rapidly.

Future applications of this technique are numerous, including ‘live’ 3-D animation and a process called ‘retro animation,’ in which existing cartoon assets can be rescripted and reanimated with no deviation from the existing brand integrity. The system is superior to a more common type of real-time animation-motion capture-because that technique is dependent on the movements of live actors, whose movements may not always remain true to those of an established character, says Ferraro. ‘With a cartoon character like Bugs Bunny, the movement and style of his behavior is tightly controlled.’ Using composed digital puppets rather than humans for real-time animation, the variability of human movement can be avoided he says.

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