By Ann Fisher
Issue: March 1, 2004

Character Animation

Digital Domain worked with director David Fincher on Gamebreakers for Nike. The CG characters target adults and teens.

There have been whispers: character animation is being used mostly for the Saturday morning cartoon crowd. Its heyday as an advertising medium for adult products is past. The popular 3D type characters from feature films have not been migrating to commercials as quickly as expected. You'd almost think character animation was past its prime. It is not.

In fact, the animators interviewed for this article see it everywhere, depending on their market niche and their definition of what character animation is.

Wit Animation created this animated tongue character for Skips potato chips. They used 3DS Max V.5 on a Dell and custom-built hardware.
"It's becoming more of a tool as more directors see movies like The Lord of the Rings. The ideas are certainly out there. It's every bit an option as any other tool that a director may have. It's absolutely accepted, not only by directors but by agencies," says Eric Barba, visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain (, a Los Angeles-based visual effects studio. He recently worked with director David Fincher on the Nike Gamebreaker spot, a realistic character-laden spot aimed at adults and teens.

"Character animation is used more than ever, even when you use mocap for animation," says Tim Wallace, CG supervisor at Blur Studio (, a visual effects and animation studio which tends toward more toy commercials and games (they do the WB Kids interstitials - all character animation - between cartoons). "We never use raw mocap. We take the capture and then we have our mocap artists clean up that data. Then we'll reduce that motion capture down to the minimal keys and we'll pass it off to the character animators to refine it." He doesn't think the heyday for adult character animation has passed. "We just submitted an eight-minute short film to the Academy that made it to the short list but didn't get a nomination, and this was targeted toward adults."

However, Jeb Milne, founder and creative director of Wit Animation (, which specializes in 3D commercial broadcast animation, says "No, [character animation] comes and goes in waves. Right now is not a peak but it'll come back. What's odd is in the last five to six years we have seen so many incredibly successful 3D animated movies from Toy Story to A Bug's Life to Shrek that everyone's a little surprised that they haven't crept into TV commercials more. It could simply be that ad agencies take a while to catch up."


DMA created an animated Ludacris for an MTV contest spot. The 2D cut-out-style was created using Cambridge Animation's Animo, traditional cel and Maya V.4.5 on a Dell Precision.
"When little Chiclets that don't have faces jump out of gum wrappers, that's character animation," says Tony Caio, president/creative director of DMA (, a Manhattan animation studio that works in both 2D and 3D. "I term character animation as anything where you have empathy or you resonate with something that's going on in-screen. Look at [Pixar's] Luxo Jr. - that's character animation. That's a lamp, there's no face, there's no lipsync. I think character animation is alive whether it's something that has two arms and a leg or a beer can.

"I've seen a trend in the business where people are used to seeing Flash animation done on the Web and the character has a very '50s, thick line look. I'm hoping that will go away," adds Caio. "I don't want to be a snob but that's definitely not the best animation. I tend to enjoy stuff that's good character development. If I laugh at it and it's a soda can, it's done right."

"There are all sorts of character animation that some people don't think of as character animation," says Amy Taylor, executive producer at Quiet Man (, a New York City boutique that specializes in character animation. "We did a thing for Pringles and it was really just an end tag - the Pringles face and we had to animate it - for us that's character animation. It's like 'take this object, it needs to be 3D and you need to make some character.' We do a lot of stuff for Oral B and Gillette where you can't make the razor bend but you need to give it character. That's why a lot of people come here because we can take objects and make them move or dance but still keep it true to what the object is.

Quiet Man used Softimage|XSI to create a completely CG Lassie to scare off a mountain lion in a GE Security Technologies spot out of BBDO, NY.
"It's got to be a really specific spot to take something that's real and put eyes and stuff on it, for it to work. I think it's still a totally valid way to go but it needs to be a special spot for that to work."

Take a tongue, for instance. Wit Animation used one to promote Skips, a potato chip snack, as the sponsor of the Saturday morning show Stars in Their Eyes for Kids. This tongue character has eyes and arms but no legs. Its creators didn't want it to look like a hot dog. Instead, the pointy tip of the tongue droops over, much like a 1950s rock 'n' roll hairdo. The :15, :10 and five :05s began running on London Weekend Television (LWT) this fall. The client was Publicis, the worldwide ad agency based in London.

"We had to achieve a certain elasticity to have it curling around like a tongue. In terms of design, it was quite a challenge. We had to invent how this tongue was going to act. Originally they wanted him to be a little bit gross and then the client wanted to make him cuter," says Milne.

Using Discreet 3DS Max V.5 on a Dell and custom built hardware, Milne praises the software for its character animation maturity. "Until three years ago, 3DS Max was not considered a good tool for 3D character animation. Then all of a sudden they employed the people who were working [on Alias] Maya, they hired their IK people, and they rewrote the IK engine in 3DS Max. Since then 3DS Max is shedding its gamey reputation. When people see what it's being used for now they go, 'Oh my god.' Maya and Max are morphing into each other. Max has tools and interface tools that are like Maya and vice versa," he says.

Blur Studios used 3DS Max on :30 and :15 spots for Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy, a multi-platform game released this past fall. The client was G&M Plumbing, a Santa Monica-based ad agency. Sphinx rescues mummy from near death as they walk through a marketplace. The longer commercial features five high-resolution main characters and more than a dozen background characters, all 3D animation without the use of motion capture.

"For comic characters you really want to focus on something that's going to get in and give that character life. You can mocap but with more stylish characters you need stylized movement. You can't put in totally realistic mocap or it just looks strange," says the CG supervisor Tim Wallace.

The Sphinx project animators used 3DS Max V.6 on dual-processor 3GHz IBM Intellistations with a gig of RAM. Eyeon Digital Fusion was used for compositing, Adobe Photoshop for textures.

Buzzco Associates (, a NYC-based animation studio, provided the animation for a Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin-like character for the :30 Hearts image spot promoting the AnMed healthcare facility in Charlotte, NC. The technique was traditional cel animation. Adobe After Effects was used for compositing.

"He was carrying a heart through the word AnMed, jumping from letter to letter," says Peter Barg, the executive producer of Z Animation (, who reps 20 animation companies worldwide, and who contracted with Buzzco for the spot - he represents Buzzco for commercial work only. "What was challenging was giving him some personality because he doesn't have any dialogue and you don't see his face. He was just doing an action, he was jumping, the letters squashed and stretched and he was a little bit off balance. It was a charming, simple little spot to tie into their print campaign and billboards." The agency was Sterrett Dymond Stewart Advertising in Charlotte.

Quiet Man turned Lassie into a kung-fu fighter, in order to scare a mountain lion away, for a :30 GE Security Technology spot for BBDO/NY.

"What's interesting about this and makes it harder, in the beginning scenes it's the real dog and then during close-ups and certain action, the dog's entirely CG," explains executive producer Amy Taylor. "We had to match and cut to the real dog so [the CG dog] had to be perfect. The big deal was the fur. We've done tons of characters with hair but this, it's a collie with the longest hair and it had to move right.

"Our research included watching kung-fu movies, then selecting what moves we wanted. We had to combine that with how a dog's body really moves. Of course we pushed that a little bit - if a dog could do this we wouldn't be doing this in CG - but at the same time you had to keep some sort of realism about how the joints moved or else you're throwing the whole thing away."

Quiet Man animators used Softimage| XSI, and additional proprietary software for hair movement, on Dell workstations. The spot was composited in Discreet Inferno.

Character animation based on live characters can be exacting work. DMA had to create a caricature of the rapper Ludacris for a :30 spot touting an MTV New Year's Eve contest (the winner was to spend the special evening with Ludacris) as well as his latest CD "Chicken and Beer." Heading off to Times Square, the character packs his bags as only a rapper can - with champagne, stewardesses and condoms.

The Monty Python-like 2D cutout style was created using Cambridge Animation's Animo, traditional cel and Maya V.4.5 on a Dell Precision workstation. The 3D artist was Adam Burke; 2D animator was Kirsten Petersen and illustrator/background artist was Lisa Weber.

The UK's Realise Studio ( used Side Effects Houdini V.6 to animate three spots for mobile phone company 02. Bubble Rd., Top Ups and Mobile Office all feature photorealistic ants and air bubbles, and were completed in under three weeks.
"We used a technique rigging the character in a 3D environment yet mapping 2D animation onto the flat polygons. Part of the reason we did this was that we had under three weeks to produce the spot, over the holidays," says Tony Caio. "Traditionally when you draw these types of things it takes awhile. We did both. We really do great 2D animation, old-school style, hand-drawn stuff but we also do really nice 3D stuff. We are not locked down to a technology. Ludacris had to approve the characterization; we didn't use digital photos or anything. We had to create a character. I set up one of the 2D artists to illustrate all the faces and different positions. A 2D animator - a real animator - laid out all the animation. Then the 3D person was building the body rig. Once we got approval of the character and approval of the animatic, he was able to take all the 2D art and map it to this 3D rig, which then allowed us to make the tweaks and move a little faster. Upfront was a little slower but then given that last week to produce it, we were able to just tweak the 3D models.

"Animo's big plus is it has a very nice phenome and lipsync tool that allows you to quickly break your soundtrack and lipsync down," he adds. "We scanned in the hand drawings and the mouths, we had to do a lipsync and we rendered those as image sequences. We brought them into Maya to have the 3D artist match and keyframe the character animation. We used After Effects to comp the 3D character with the background and composited the mouths of the character separately. This way we could tweak the soundtrack because we weren't going to get the soundtrack til late. So we pre-produced all the motion and [in the] last two-to-three days we dropped in the lipsync."

Digital Domain created the :60 Nike Gamebreaker, which aired in November, with director David Fincher. It features Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens in a futuristic, supercharged, videogame atmosphere. The characters are 3D and stylishly realistic. The client was Weiden & Kennedy, Portland, OR.

For a :20 and a :15, Blur used characters from Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy to promote the videogame. It was 3D without the use of mocap.
This was a high-budget spot that involved motion capture of the actual players, cyberscanning them and a half-dozen others, close-up photography for textures. Motion Analysis was the motion capture company.

"We used everything we could get our hands on for a variety of reasons," says visual effects supervisor Eric Barba. "Kaydara Motion Builder played an important role because Motion Analysis gave us the mocap and the first stop here was Kaydara where we were able to clean up, adjust and quickly layout the move we got from motion capture, then plug it in to the rest of the moves. With the motion capture, we were only able to get six guys at any given time in one take. We had to convey a field of 33 defenders and 11 offensive players and we had to be able to show that to [the director] in one go. Kaydara was the backbone of how that motion capture got handled then ultimately put into our pipeline. After Kaydara it plugged into Maya with a lot of our proprietary tools so we could animate on top of the mocap."

From there it went through the pipeline and ultimately got rendered out with NewTek LightWave with more proprietary tools. It was composited on the proprietary Nuke.