NBC this month introduced a new character named Johnny Chimes, an animated peacock lounge lizard who sings Sinatra knock-offs while promoting the network’s primetime lineup.
You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Johnny is actually a woman. And while she’s certainly lively, she isn’t animated. She’s a real live, flesh-and-blood puppeteer, who dresses in a blue rubber suit and straps on enough wires and cables to resemble a human marionette.
Johnny Chimes is an example of a phenomenon called “performance animation,” a computerized motion-capture technology that has been around since 1989 but is only recently taking hold in the American animation business.
He is created on a tiny soundstage in Burbank by Medialab Studio L.A., a joint venture between French entertainment company Canal Plus’ digital arm (also called Medialab) and Burbank post-production house Four Media Co.
Performance animation is created by strapping puppeteers with wires that control the movements of a virtual, computer-generated character.
Johnny Chimes isn’t the only live-action animated figure on TV. A similar live-action animated figure appears on The Site, a news and information program on the MSNBC cable network.
And Medialab isn’t the only company producing such characters. But its recent deal with NBC will bring wider exposure for the technology than ever before in this country. The system is already well-known in France, where Medialab’s parent has produced several feature films and a magazine show hosted by an animated video game character “Planet Donkey Kong.”
The key attraction to NBC is fast turnaround time. John Miller, the network’s executive vice president of advertising, promotions and event programming, said Johnny Chimes might eventually be an on-air comedian, telling topical jokes about recent events. So the ability to produce him quickly is crucial.
“A regular animated character takes forever to animate,” Miller said. “When we have an idea, we can turn this thing around in a matter of days. With traditional cel animation, it would take weeks to get it done.”
In the case of Johnny Chimes, one puppeteer controls the movements of his body. Another wearing a glove in which each individual finger movement controls a different facial expression controls his mouth movements and expressions.
A third puppeteer controls the blinking of his eyes, while a fourth makes his trademark NBC peacock tail open and close like a fan.
Because the character is created in real time, it is possible to produce animation as quickly as a live-action show, and directors have the same control over the finished product as they would if working with a human actor.
And because the animated character is easily superimposed over a real background, it is possible to seamlessly mix live characters with animated ones.
“The thing that has always kept animation from having a major presence on television was cost and time,” said Mackenzie Waggaman, executive producer at Medialab. “Now you can have the same time and budget for live-action and incorporate animated characters.”
Animation executives praise motion capture technology, but point out that it does have limitations. The abilities of the characters are limited to the abilities of their human puppeteers they can’t be squashed flat as a pancake after a safe falls on their heads, for example.
And despite assurances from Medialab that performance animation is comparatively inexpensive, cost is still a factor.
“Probably, they’ll have to deal with cost issues down the road,” said Andy Heyward, president of DIC Entertainment L.P.
The biggest cost for producers is the creation of the animated character. Although the computer interprets all the character’s movements once it has been created, artists first have to set the parameters, coming up with a digital design that involves substantial time and expense.
Waggaman said it costs between $100,000 and $150,000 to create a digital character. After that, producers need only pay a day rate to film segments using the character, at a cost of about $27,000 a day to use Medialab’s studio. Compare that to the $350,000 to $400,000 per episode that it costs to produce a half-hour animated TV show, and motion capture is a bargain, Waggaman said.
“There’s no comparison between our system and key frame animation,” Waggaman said. “You amortize the cost of your character very quickly.”
NBC won’t be the only forum for Medialab. Early next year, the Fox Broadcasting Co. network will debut a mid-season replacement show called “VENUS on the Hard Drive.” Medialab officials aren’t allowed to reveal much about VENUS, but the title character is a virtual woman produced by the studio who will interact with live-action characters.
Medialab is also branching into feature films. In last summer’s live-action “Adventures of Pinocchio,” Pepe the Cricket was created by Medialab’s French parent.
Currently, the creation of the digital characters is done in France, while ongoing production is performed in Burbank. Waggaman, though, said equipment and animators are being imported to L.A. so that the entire production job can be done locally.
“Medialab’s characters have a good look, and they’re smart people (at Canal Plus),” said Heyward. “I think they’ll be very successful.”
As for Johnny Chimes, who is still in the testing stage for NBC after appearing last week during the NBA finals, there is no telling where the network might eventually take him.
“The best thing about Johnny Chimes so far is, he has no agent,” Miller said. “Even though he has already been written about in a number of magazines, he has not asked to renegotiate his contract. And we can fire him at any time