VFX Los Angeles

Real-time Computer Characters: No Practical Value But a Great Stunt

Real-Time Computer Characters Show Emotions

“Live stuff has no practical value, but it’s a great stunt.”

After I finished The Blob, the FX coordinator of that film, Mike Fink, put me in touch with a computer graphics company called deGraf/Wahrman. At the time I knew nothing about computer graphics at all, let alone real-time computer characters – something I had in common with the rest of the film industry. I went over to their place in West Hollywood, met Brad deGraf and Michael Wahrman, and found out the reason for their interest in hiring a puppeteer.

Real-time computer character animated man/emotions

They’d just developed some new software for a new computer called the IRIS, made by some company called Silicon Graphics. Again, this all meant nothing to me, but what their software DID was impressive indeed. On a computer screen was a very realistic animated human head, and next to the screen were some joysticks and controls. Moving the joysticks caused the head on the screen to move in response. You could change the expression of the face, move and blink the eyes, and even move the lips into different positions.

It was too cool.

I messed around with the joysticks a bit. deGraf and Wahrman, apparently unconcerned that this computer stuff was about to signal the death of the FX industry as we knew it, liked what they saw.


Atlanta, Georgia – one week later. The annual SIGGRAPH convention.

Until I got there I’d never heard of SIGGRAPH, but it was supposed to be a big deal. We were going to debut our historic real-time character animation at the half-time break in the Film show – the showcase of the best of the year’s computer graphics. (This was 1988, so the film show mostly consisted of chrome TV network logos and thirty-second-long student films. It’s more interesting these days. Well, somewhat more).

I’d been getting a crash course in computer graphics lingo. Whenever I was asked about the big demo deGraf/Wahrman was planning, I’d randomly insert words like “bitmap,” “render” and “raster” into my response until the questioner went away. Only we from deGraf/Wahrman knew I was there to demonstrate how somebody who knew nothing about computers could still use the system. Sort of like the Don Knotts character in The Reluctant Astronaut.

We met with Mike Gribble, a nice guy who was the host of the film show and a close relative of the computer character (now officially christened Mike Normal). The original data for Mike N. was a laser-scan of Mike Gribble’s head, and there was a definite resemblance. (Mike, who unfortunately is no longer with us, was also the “Mike” of “Spike and Mike’s Twisted Animation Festival”).

We Were a Couple of Animated Characters

Mike and I worked out a semi-improv bit where human Mike would stand onstage and describe how he got laser-scanned while computer Mike acted out the story from a video screen overhead. Then computer Mike would lip-sync some opera – opera being preferable since it was mostly vowels and computer Mike wasn’t very good at enunciating yet.

running man animation

We did this little show three times over three successive nights to an audience of several thousand of the brightest minds in the computer graphics world.

As far as I could tell, they didn’t get it. Their response to this ground-breaking performance seemed to be a collective “So what?”

I met somebody (I don’t know who, but I’m sure he’s very important in the industry by now) at one of the parties.

He said, “You did that live demo thing, eh?”

I said, “Yes, I did.”

He said, “Yeah, right. Well, that live stuff has no practical value, but it’s a great stunt.”

Anyway, I continued at deGraf/Wahrman on a part-time basis, whenever they managed to convince somebody to use their “impractical stunt.” We did a few more live performances – the keynote address at the TED 2 conference, for example. The deGraf/Wahrman system was also used in RoboCop 2, the ride film Time Machine of Dreams and to animate the cyber-hostess of Art Futura ’90 in Barcelona.

Nowadays they call real-time computer character animation “motion capture” and it’s all the rage. And while deGraf/Wahrman is no more, both deGraf and Wahrman have moved on to new and better things, they both still do that impractical, useless live animation stuff. Some people never learn.