February 24
A Marriage of Inconvenience
How an animated man and an animatronic woman learned to live together in sync

by Frank Moldstad
Executive Producer

The project sounded straightforward enough when Scott Simmons signed onto it in late September 1997. The California Science Center in Los Angeles needed a 3D set with various animations composited into it for an exhibit called BodyWorks that shows how the human body works. But Simmons, Digital Effects Supervisor at Live Wire Productions in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., soon realized this project would be a lot tougher than he anticipated.

"Just before production began, the post house went belly up, and there was no place to post it," he says. "So they were going to do it all online, which would have been a big mistake."

In an ordinary production, posting online could work. This one, however, involved a 15-minute animation with no cuts, a continuous sequence. It had to be done offline, an additional job Simmons and his crew quickly assumed. The BodyWorks exhibit has two stars—Tess, a 50-foot anatomically correct transparent test dummy, and her sidekick, Walt, star of the animation. Walt holds court on a 30-foot multimedia screen adjacent to where Tess reclines on the floor. In a coordinated production that involves animatronics, animation and special effects, Tess and Walt explore how the body's organs work together.

With no post house and a 15-minute uninterrupted animation to be placed on virtual set, Simmons and his crew had their work cut out for them. But it was to become more complicated still when they received the animated portion.

"Walt would have to leap from place to place. But the hookups we got from the animators were off," Simmons says.

With inconsistencies in the hookups, the animation would not register properly in the virtual set, and in some cases there were 20 percent differences between the character from one scene to another. Fortunately, the line weights of the characters held up.

"The animation was good, all done by professionals, but there was a lot of variation," Simmons says. "

This would not be problem in a film, but there were no cuts in this project! It ended up being an eyeball tracking process. "We really got involved in compositing," he continues. "It wasn't really our job, but the onus was on us.... Usually it's an editorial function. But if somebody else made a mistake, it would cascade, and we'd be wondering, is it the audio? Is it this or that?"

It required thousands of key frames and 300 layers in Adobe After Effects to get everything flowing smoothly in the 15-minute shot. Fortunately, Simmons and crew were well organized for keeping track of the ins and outs, aided by lots of Filemaker templates. Although he's a veteran After Effects user, Simmons says the complexities caused error messages he'd never seen, "things like exceeding file size limits." But he hastens to praise the production elements in After Effects as being "much better than in other programs. You cannot gang things together in other programs like you can in AE."

The combined responsibilities of production and post production meant that Simmons and his team were the only ones who knew all the details of the project, an arduous position under such circumstances.

"The worst part was when we got the soundtrack, and it was off. It was all lip-synced!" he says. "So we went into Premiere and locked it so we could see the soundtrack. Not to criticize anybody: It's a hard thing to do a 15-minute animation with no cuts."

Despite the chaotic conditions, the project turned out very well, and BodyWorks became the most popular exhibit at the museum, Simmons says. But in retrospect, if he were starting this project now, he'd have one key question for the client: "Do you really need a 15-minute long cartoon with no cuts?"

Scott Simmons is a Digital FX Supervisor at Live Wire Productions in Los Angeles. His feature film and television credits include work for Austin Powers 2, Meet the Deedles, Fantasy Island, JAG and many others.

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