Jacquie Kubin reveals why edutainment is not elementary, when she investigates the new CD-Rom, Miss Spider's Tea Party, based on David Kirk's children's book.
Every piece of entertainment begins with a good story, set in a believable universe and ending with a plausible outcome. For the game animator, there are bookshelves of children's tales that can be adopted into the genre of animated CD-Rom called edutainment. But edutainment is not elementary. Recently the world of Miss Spider, written and illustrated by David Kirk, has been modeled into a CD-Rom by Simon and Shuster Interactive and Hypnotix, Inc., a game developer located in Little Falls, New Jersey, called Miss Spider's Tea Party.
"Miss Spider is a property that has been around as a proven seller for about eight years, during which time it has developed an extremely loyal fan base as a story book," said Jeff Siegel, vice president and creative director for Simon and Shuster Interactive. "It seemed to be sitting there just waiting to be turned into another medium."
Bringing A Book To Life
Kirk's use of neon colors -- vibrant oranges and yellows, day-glo greens and reds, Kool-Aid inspired blues and pinks -- transforms brilliantly to the computer screen. Yet moving the storybook into an interactive game was a feat that required a team with the talent to bring the established and highly stylized set of characters to motion while remaining true to the storybook reality.
Even though the final game is played within a 2D environment, its development requires the combination of 2D and 3D animation skills. By creating the characters in 3D, the craftsmen are able to revisit and reuse the work without having to re-draw the characters which insures continuity.
Miss Spider's Tea Party CD-Rom required the development of two types of animations. There are the "cut scenes," which are the animated movies used between games to propel the story, and the game animations. The cut scenes are placed within "windows" or frames that visually border the movie action.
The animation was first created using 3D Studio Max, where the characters were 3D modeled and then, to that model, the mouth movements were synched with the sound files. Lighting was then added to the final scene. Sound and special effects were put together using Vegas Pro from Sonic Foundry. Scenes were then composited and rendered to combine all the elements -- character, sound and lighting -- that the animators had developed.
While the storybook teaches counting from one to ten within its lush environment, the CD-Rom's expansive room contains eight games, each teaching a different set of skills.
Getting The Story Right
While the animators were challenged with bringing Miss Spider's neon-bright universe to life, the programs producers at Simon and Shuster and Hypnotix worked with David Kirk to create tasks that would meld the story -- Miss Spider's desire to have her bug-friends come to tea -- with the activities.
Unlike animating a feature film or cartoon, the process of creating a game requires that the animation be able to react believably to the player's input. For example, with the "maze" game, the ant's movements are basically right and left and up and down. For each of these movements, an animation was created that could then be looped and seamlessly run for the length of the maze section. Additional animations for this game included movements an ant would make when resting, such as moving his legs or shaking his head, while waiting for the players next action. The final animation in this game is when the ant exits the maze he does a little jump and runs off screen. The animators also needed to work in audio prompts and hints to help encourage the child to continue playing.
"Of the games, my favorite must be Beetles' River Cross," said Kirk. "Not only is it challenging, but the beetles response to Miss Spider's invitation is one of my favorite parts."
Kirk was enlisted to write all of the verse for the CD-Rom including that beetlely response of, "We shall try to visit you if you will bake us cupcakes too."
"Children's writing is complex and unique to the individual author," said Siegel. "People are expecting David Kirk's unique style, which they know, and another writer could not come in and accomplish this."
All that dialogue meant that the sound of those characters, the music and vocal talents, must be chosen with extreme care. "The voices needed to match the bugs. For instance, we saw Miss Spider as being very soft spoken and motherly in contrast to the image we might have of a spider," said Mike Taramykin, President Hypnotix, Inc.
A Quality Product
For the producers of the program, Miss Spider presented a universe that is deep and has enchanting characters. "The sensibilities of David's work was very attractive to us," said Siegel. "I want to reference the Charlie Brown and Warner Bros. cartoons. They don't play down to the children. They go a little deeper than they have to and there are lessons interwoven with the story."
In the world of children's activity CD-Roms, Miss Spider's Tea Party is a stand out. The electronic medium carries the look and feel of a storybook and just as children revisit her book-tales every night, they will want to revisit this animated world during daytime play.
Though this game is targeted toward fostering interaction with a four to seven year-old skill set, parents will enjoy the colors and challenges along with their children, while possibly taking additional delight in the whimsical and lyrical writing.
As an interactive game developer, Simon and Shuster Interactive focuses on branded properties from the children's worlds of Richard Scarry to the adult sarcasm of Daria (Darias Sick, Sad Life Planner).
Violets Miss Spider Role
According to Kirk, the final drawing of Miss Spider was very different from how he first envisioned her. "The real look of a spider is actually quite frightening," said Kirk. "Miss Spider is primarily yellow, versus her original red, with a non-spidery pointed nose and a lock of red hair that matches the freckles sprinkled across her cheeks."
David Kirk's role as a creator for children began as founder and designer for two toy companies, Ovicular Toyworks and Hoobert Toys. His hand-painted wooden toys were packaged in boxes decorated with one of Kirk's paintings. One of those toy box illustrations inspired book publisher Nicholas Callaway, to ask Kirk to create a children's book.
"I thought a story about insects was appropriate because of my daughter's interest in bugs," said Kirk. "She has always picked them up, jumping spiders to caterpillars. Once a large carpenter ant was biting her and my wife knocked it down and squashed it. Violet was very upset feeling the retribution for such a little bite was too severe."
Now the oil painting and word driven universe created for his daughter Violet is being transformed into a living environment through the CD-Rom, an upcoming movie project, a line of toys and a recurring television feature that will launch this spring.
A Washington, DC-based freelance journalist, Jacquie enjoys writing about the electronic entertainment and edutainment mediums, including the Internet. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Times and Krause Publication magazines. She has won the 1998 Certificate of Award granted by the Metropolitan Area Mass Media Committee of the American Association of University Women. Jacquie is a fan of animation and video games but admits to being unable to play them!