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Animation's New 'Toon

Advances Mean 'Motion Capture' Is About to Make a Splash


This may come as no surprise, but Vanna White's letter-turning duties on "Wheel of Fortune" can be performed by a cartoon character.

"Cyber Lucy" is the star of the new "Wheel 2000," a kids' version of "Wheel of Fortune" debuting on CBS on Sept. 13. She's no ordinary cartoon; she's a product of "motion capture" (also called real-time) animation. Behind the computer-drawn Lucy that the audience sees on monitors is a real person whose movements are tracked instantaneously to "animate" the character.

Just offstage at "Wheel's" studio on the Sony lot, the movements of an actress wearing a dozen motion-tracking magnets and nylon harnesses are being followed and fed into a computer. On her head is a half-pound device that optically tracks her facial movements. Her movements provide instant animation for Lucy.

After a decade of experimentation, the process has recently become cost-effective, time-efficient and reliable enough to fill the needs of television producers.

Venice-based Modern Cartoons, Lucy's creator, is among four major motion capture firms in California that are tapping a process that will be making a splash this fall in television, video and other media.

Writer-director-actor Steve Oedekerk and Modern Cartoons have created a TV special showcasing motion capture creatures; South Pasadena-based SimGraphics will release a children's video series with a "virtual" alien host, and Burbank's Medialab has created a series based on Nintendo's Donkey Kong video game character that will debut in Canada.

Motion capture animation has its roots in the defense industry. SimGraphics, which was founded in 1985 to create software for defense contractors, is responsible for Fox's "Bruno the Kid" (which features a virtual Bruce Willis) and CBS' "Secrets of the Cryptkeeper's Haunted House."

The motion-tracking process itself was created for military use in the 1970s. Although it has been used in entertainment venues since the late 1980s, it wasn't until last year that the hardware, consisting of small magnetic sensors, harnesses, wires and computer software, became simple and reliable enough to make it attractive for television production.

"A few years ago, you had to buy 12 sensors with 12 power supplies in separate boxes from us," said Jack Scully, vice president of marketing and sales for South Burlington, Vt.-based Ascension Technology. Ascension is one of the leading suppliers of motion capture hardware, along with Colchester, Vt.-based Polehemus Inc.

Last year, Ascension introduced a "plug and play" system with everything needed to sense and transmit the data in one box. Ascension also supplies harnesses the sensors are attached to, though many customers attach the half-inch-square sensors to their own custom suits or harnesses, generally made of lightweight nylon. A new wireless setup costs $65,000, while a wired, or "tethered," model is $35,000.

Most work is still done on pricey Silicon Graphics computers, though companies are beginning to move to a PC platform. Compared with the cost of traditional cel animation or computer-generated animation, motion capture is already very affordable. Medialab (a division of France's Canal Plus) estimates that a "full body" character can be animated for as little as $1,000 per minute; over a series of shows, the price can go even lower. Cel animation, by contrast, can cost as much as $5,000 a minute.

These prices don't include other production elements, such as backgrounds. Still, combined with the flexibility and control of animating in real time versus sending a scripted show overseas to be animated, it represents a breakthrough for use in television.

"Real time makes it feasible to do ['Wheel 2000'] on a budget, in front of a live audience," says Sander Schwartz, senior vice president of children's programming for Sony's Columbia TriStar Television. He adds that the game show format, with the single animated character, is especially economical. And he expects to see expanded use of more complex motion capture animated shows as costs go down.

To date, motion capture animation on television has been limited mainly to kids' programming. But NBC, Fox and HBO are considering adult shows this fall. Indeed, a number of characters in development are scantily clad virtual sex kittens.

For now, the most popular use for real-time characters is as "hosts" dropped into low-cost live programming, such as a game show. It's much more expensive and difficult to do motion capture animation involving character interaction. Right now, characters' hands appear to slice through others' hands rather than touch them.

Real Entertainment, the video firm behind last year's hit "Cops" series, is using animal footage from the 1980s quiz show "Animal Crack-Ups" for six kids' videos set for release in October. The videos are hosted by a purple alien named Zak, created with SimGraphics.

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