Friday, February 20, 2009...12:20 am

Puppeteers and CG animation

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Before I got so tired that I had to go to sleep in the cinema at last weekend’s Animated Exeter, I ended up at a presentation of the techniques behind What’s Your News – a new combined CG animation/live action kids’ TV show from Nick Jr.

Despite the irritating theme music, the show is actually quite fun – it’s the kind of news that is central to the lives of very small children, like getting a new puppy, or being able to do a double somersault. And presented by ants. Go figure.

I’m not that interested in CG as a rule – I am a big stop-frame fan, mainly because working with the puppets is like real acting, (only very, v-e-e-e-e-e-ry slow). In contrast, trying to breathe life into a computer-generated character using a mouse and keyboard seems really unnatural.

Animated Exeter - What's Your News?

The difference with What’s Your News is that, instead of being made by Maya wizards, the animation has been created by a team of puppeteers, who have worked on the Jim Henson/Creature Workshop-type shows I remember from my childhood. This means the production process is far more intuitive than typical CG, and also much quicker, as a lot of it is done in real time.

The initial character design is done on computer, as normal, but then the main body animation is done using motion capture, the same way Gollum was created in Lord of the Rings. But the clever part is that traditional puppeteering hand controls are hooked up to the computer system to move the character’s digital hands, mouth, eyes and other bits and pieces. The puppeteer acts along to a playback of the action, manipulating the various body parts in real-time or half-time. Better still, different sets of actions can be layered up, multi-track recording style, allowing the puppeteer to build up a performance of impressive complexity very quickly.

It’s a really attractive approach. If it weren’t for the fact that I’d have to lay out so much money for the equipment, I’d be tempted to switch to this technique to create my next animated masterpiece. Instead, it’ll be back to the garage to make foam and wire puppets of knights and horses. Look out for Troll Bridge at Animated Exeter in, oh – around 2012, I reckon…

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