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Visioneering: Interactive Animation at Creative Capers

Creative Capers had a happy existence doing animation for Hollywood feature films until the CD-ROM revolution came along. Harvey Deneroff takes a peek at what's doing there animation-wise.

Sue Shakespeare, Co-founder Creative Capers Entertainment. Photo by Walter Mladina.

In the last few years, as video game gear and personal computers have become more and more powerful, interactive producers have begun to hire "feature quality" animators and studios to do animation. Thus, Activision used Kroyer Films (FernGully: The Last Rainforest) for Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure. At the same time, some animation houses were entering the interactive arena in full force, including Creative Capers Entertainment, in Glendale, California.

The company was once known for doing animation on such features as Tom & Jerry: The Movie, The Pagemaster and Thumbelina. However, the experience of its founders--the husband and wife team of Terry and Sue Shakespeare, and David Molina--in the interactive arena actually dates back over 10 years, when they worked together for Don Bluth on such pioneering games as Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. Thus, they were far from complete novices when it decided three years ago to make a major push into the interactive animation, in addition to continuing on other animation and design-related activities.

Last year, they entered into a multi-year agreement with Disney to produce interactive projects together. Their most visible work is seen in the animation for such products as The Hunchback of Notre Dame Topsy Turvy Games and the forthcoming 101 Dalmations Animated Storybook. Disney Interactive also has first dibs on any new projects Creative Capers comes up with.

The evil witch from an upcoming animated story book by Creative Capers Entertainment.

I recently visited with Sue Shakespeare, Creative Caper's President and Supervising Producer, and Duane Loose, who is given the Disney-style title of "Visioneer." Sue is best known for her management expertise and for her rescue efforts on Rover Dangerfield and The Chipmunk Adventure, features that had fallen seriously behind schedule. (She also consulted on the completion of Richard William's ill-fated masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler [Arabian Knight]; unfortunately, her plan to let Williams finish the film was rejected, but that's another story.)

Duane's background is in industrial design. He was also an award-winning sci-fi/game illustrator, who also worked as a designer for Disney's EPCOT Center and on virtual reality installations for Virtual World Entertainment.

Adjusting to Interactive Animation

Given the studio's experience in doing feature animation, I asked Shakespeare to articulate the differences between straight to interactive animation. "I think there are a lot of differences between the two," she said. "Depending on the platform, we can be working at a variety of frame rates, anywhere from 10 to 18 frames per second. So, we have to adjust our animation style according to the game we're producing, or the platform that it will play on. Disney's Animated Storybooks traditionally are in the 10 fps range. Gaming titles, like the next generation of Playstations, are up at the higher rates, 18 to 24 fps, which is like traditional feature film animation.

She feels that, "It takes a lot of discipline and strength on the part of the animator to say a lot with fewer frames. The animation is much more from pose to pose. It has to be very strong. In features, you move around a lot. You can move slowly, have lots of inbetweens and be very fluid. In games and Animated Storybooks, there's a purpose for every scene and you have to communicate that quickly using half or even a tenth the number of the frames. In an Animated Storybook, the purpose is to deliver the look and feel and the story of the movie with just a tiny percentage of the animation you would have in a film. So, you have to be much more disciplined."

Submarine approaching the Necromancer's palace from an upcoming adventure game by Creative Capers Entertainment.

I commented that in most interactive animation I've seen, only one character seems to move at a time. Shakespeare agreed, noting that, "most of engines, as in the Storybooks, can only refresh the screen at a certain rate. One of the rules is that you can animate no more than about a third of the screen at any one time. That way, you have good response time, the animation can move fluidly and dialogue can continue. If you try to animate more than that, it gets real jerky and drops frames.

"Also," she continues, "if you have a Pentium computer, which is a high performance machine, the CD-ROM is going to play very smoothly. But a lower end machine, such as a 386, can hardly move that graphic material. The movement will get choppy, or do what they call tearing. So, titles have restrictions on them.

"For PC and Mac based games, usually the whole screen has to refresh itself [for each movement.] In a Playstation or cartridge games, each character is like a sprite; thus, only that part of the screen where the character is moving, is refreshed, so it can move much faster.

"However, in the Topsy Turvy Games, which was developed by a programmer at 7th Level, their engine move things round as sprites, so it's moving fast, so you can have a richer experience." But whether or not you get the full benefit of this type of technology still seems to depend in part on the power of your computer.

Opportunity for Excellence

Duane Loose adds that, "Working within the limitations of the medium is a real opportunity for excellence. I think the goal here has been to provide the kind of quality you normally see in an animated feature, but at the CD-ROM level. I think we've accomplished that, even with the severe limitations of working at 8 or 10 fps, because of the focus is on the art and characterization.

"What we've ended up with," he asserts, "is a superior product that, if you went and put all the inbetweens to make it up to 24 fps, wouldn't change the basic excellence of the animation. It's a challenge, but not everybody does it well. With our group we have taken that [feature animation] quality and imposed it on this genre. Before, it was kind of like the orphan child of animation. If you weren't good enough to be a feature animator, well, you went down to multimedia or something else. That's no longer the case. I think the bar has been raised.

"With the advent of some of the newer technologies, I think feature animation studios are going to be vying with multimedia companies for the same people, because the challenge and quality of the work is going to be the same."

Shakespeare boasts that, "All of our animators are or have been feature animators at Disney, Bluth or Warner Bros. Even for them, when they start doing this, it's a new set of rules they have to learn and they find it really fun. They also find that, as artists, they become better animators, because they're having to tell that message, or do that action in limited frames, and just put in the drawings that count."

She puts the challenge posed by interactive animation today by comparing it with those posed by the limited animation styles popularized by UPA and then taken up by Disney in the 1950s, when "Ward Kimball started doing some experimental films like Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. They adjusted the style of animation from very slow, fluid animation to punctuated movement that relied on very strong poses."

Loose adds that, "Our goal is to always experiment, like Kimball did, to keep ourselves challenged, so we always maintain the bar at a higher level."

New Technologies

Shakespeare and Loose both look forward to using such new technologies as DVD which will allow them to do more complex animation. "The reason," she states, "is that we've already set ourselves up with a process that we feel will take advantage of any new technology that comes along; I think we understand the limitations and the gifts that it will give us, so we can do things that we're already chomping at the bit to do once the technology is here. That's why we have a development group (we call it visioneering) which gets our minds out into the future. We not only look at new technology, but what's happening in our society. We know that, when these new technologies come out, that we have the vision to be able to take advantage of them: first by understanding them and having a process that takes advantage of them.

"It's like working out what the Internet will be like a year or two out, when cable modems will be in place. It'll be a totally different. We need to know what kind of entertainment properties will happen and what kind of animation is going to be needed."

Loose adds that, "We're excited about the new technologies. If this was Medieval England, we'd be the wizards, because we're the ones that are involved in the alchemy."

"For some," he continues, "all the new technology raises more questions than it answers. Where we look at is that it's raising opportunities for us to just do more of what we really love to do."

"The strength of the tool is important," Shakespeare points out, " but that's not the answer. The answer is the artist behind the tool. That creative brain married with a superlative set of tools can create phenomenal things. We are still PC and Mac based. We have not found the desire to invest heavily in the SGI area, because we feel with a number of PC and Mac tools we can create equally great art."

Or, as Loose put it, "We are artists first. We don't want people who are just technologists. We want people that have the passion for design and art that will basically enable the tool to go much further than the a technologist will be able to take it. So, when we look at emerging technologies, we look at as another paint brush or pencil; as another way to express an artistic vision."

Harvey Deneroff, in addition to his duties as Editor of Animation World Magazine, edits and publishes The Animation Report, an industry newsletter.