Saturday, September 27, 2008

Digital Puppetry

Managed to catch a demonstration of digital puppetry from Brian Henson (the son of Jim Henson). He talked for about two hours about the history of puppetry (The Muppets), the history of animatronics as they used it in film (The Dark Crystal, Dinosaurs), with up to five puppeteers being required per character, the evolution to more sophisticated puppet controls, and eventually on to digital puppetry. The final demo was of a new Henson show called Sid The Science Kid on PBS that is fantastic for two reasons:
  • it is an attempt to get kids interested in science at an early age (4-6) which anyone should applaud
  • the show is produced using digital puppetry which results in a more organic feel to the characters with the side benefit of the process being far more efficient than traditional CGI

Demo of simple traditional hand puppet in front of a camera.
Of course I was most interested in the digital puppets. As Brian is a puppeteer he mentioned that he was more apt to tackling characters by having an inside to outside control of the character's emotions. This is apparently much more difficult when using motion capture on actors to capture the emotion outside to inside (not very effective). I think the puppetry stuff works very well for cartoony, fantastic, magical, or science fiction elements (ring a bell?). Not so much for real world style animation with human characters. The puppeteers were shown with elaborate rigs while controlling the digital characters and it was impressive to see how much control they could actually exert. The action is 'captured' using something like a three camera setup that would be similar to that used for a sitcom and then edited. They were doing something like 2-2.5 episodes a week and had forty episodes ready to go.

A couple of other interesting tidbits
  • In general terms Hollywood really likes post production heavy films now because even though it costs more, it means the studios have far more control than when a movie is preproduction heavy (cited Spike Jones upcoming movie Where The Wild Things Are).
  • That the CG feel is disappearing as both the technical limitations continue to fall and that distinctive cold and mechanical look will disappear as the hardware and software improve, and also as Hollywood becomes tired of it and moves away from using it exclusively.
  • That Eastern European puppetry was often the last media that was censored by the state (cool trivia) and could be a refuge of commentary.
  • UNCONFIRMED RUMOR - that a new Dark Crystal is in the works.
  • Is Pixar interested in digital puppetry? Maybe. But their characters are already such great characters that it might not be necessary. That is because Pixar takes the time to craft great characters.

New Sid the Science Kid series - all 'animated' characters are actually digital puppets controled by a Henson company puppeteer.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this impacts animation in the future, and whether or not I can get one of those rigs myself.

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