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CYBERCULTURE | TECHNICITY: DAN KUENSTER

Animation of a Different Character

September 23, 1996|PAUL KARON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a kid, Dan Kuenster wanted to be both an actor and an artist.

That's the best explanation, he figures, for how he ended up in the fanciful world of animation--first for Walt Disney Co. and later under the tutelage of Don Bluth, at whose independent animation studio he drew landmark animated films such as "The Secret of NIMH" and Steven Spielberg's "An American Tail."

With credentials like those, Kuenster could have been content staying at the highest level of cinema animation artists. But three years ago, he turned away from feature animation and gambled on the uncertain future of computer-based interactive multimedia, signing on as vice president of animation for 7th Level Inc., a multimedia firm in Glendale.

Why? Kuenster could not resist the challenge 7th Level set before him: to go beyond the traditional tasks of animating characters for movie and television stories and instead create "intelligent" cartoon beings.

"They were asking me to make a living two-dimensional cartoon character that could respond to the users, to move the way they tell him and do what they tell him to do," Kuenster said. "In a movie or a TV show, you have no control over the cartoon character, but when you create a character for interactive media--that's completely new."

At 7th Level, Kuenster has become a bridge between the grand cinematic traditions of animation and the latest forms of interactive games and educational CD-ROMs.

Kuenster's animation background is the closest thing this young art form has to "classical"; he got his first animation job at Disney, where he worked as an "in-betweener."

That's the lowest rung on the animation ladder, where novice artists slowly learn the trade by drawing the mundane cels linking more important and difficult frames. Kuenster's boss was Eric Larson, one of the legendary "Nine Old Men" who presided over Disney's first golden age of animated films.

Now Kuenster is one of the leading experts in the creation of characters and backgrounds in the world of interactive multimedia. It is an arguably more complex task than traditional animation: Not only must the interactive titles contain more hours of entertainment than a movie or television program, but they also must by definition respond to the commands of the users with numerous pathways of stories and information.

"What holds you in an interactive title is the experience you're having and the multiple lines of exploration you can take," Kuenster said. "You're trying to rock one person at his computer--not an entire theater full of people."

But the medium's uniqueness demands a completely new set of computerized tools and skills. That means Kuenster had to create not just a new sort of animated product, but new computer tools as well.

Kuenster is definitely not a computer programmer. Yet, more than anyone else at 7th Level, he has become the architect of the firm's new multimedia production program. The program, called Studio 7, is several things at once: a database of reusable animation, a playback engine and a complete multimedia production process that includes digital inking and painting and audio design.

"What interested me was the puzzle: How do I build a database of animation that's reusable?" Kuenster asked. "No one else had ever done it before."

At 7th Level, Kuenster has worked on at least a dozen CD-ROM titles, including the firm's upcoming "Ace Ventura." He is also designing 7th Level's most ambitious new project: an Internet-based environment that will enable kids around the world to chat and play interactive computer-based games.

Paul Karon can be e-mailed at pkaron@netcom.com

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Bio: Dan Kuenster

Age: 40

Job: Vice president of Animation, 7th Level Inc.

Tools: Pencil, paper and Studio 7--a multimedia production software package.

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