Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 1 (January 2001)

Aliens Among Us

TV commercial

By Audrey Doyle

Despite the powerful capabilities of today's modeling and animation tools, character animation is still a perplexing proposition. Some times, balancing the needs of a project with a desire to create the most believable character performance possible can be even more difficult. Such was the case with "Intelligent Life," a commercial post-produced by Quiet Man in New York City for the K'nex toy company.

"Animating the faces of CG characters is still a huge challenge," says David Shirk, lead animator at Quiet Man. "But for this project, even more difficult was fulfilling the ad agency's and client's desire for characters that were interesting but not so interesting that they upstaged the toy being advertised."

To overcome the facial animation undertaking, the team used alterEGO, a new facial animation plug-in from face2face Animation. Handling the directive put forth by the ad agency, however, required a certain level of perseverance. "Animators always want to make their work look as cool as possible," Shirk says. "In this instance we had to restrain ourselves and make sure we served the purposes of the spot."
Artists used detailed facial animation, achieved with face2face's alterEGO, to make a pair of humanlike CG aliens enthralled by a toy in this live-action TV commercial for K'nex.

In the commercial, which began airing recently as 15- and 30-second spots throughout the US and the UK, two 3D computer-generated aliens are sent to Earth to search for signs of intelligent life. When they arrive, they ignore the children they encounter and concentrate instead on a robotic toy the children are playing with. The toy, which can be programmed to exhibit different behaviors, such as those of a guard dog or a battle robot, was built with the K'nex plastic blocks advertised in the spot. Everything in the spot is live action, except for the two CG aliens.

According to Shirk, the client re quested that the aliens have human qualities. "They didn't want the characters to look whimsical. They wanted them to look sophisticated in terms of the personality they put forth," Shirk says. "They felt this would best be conveyed if they were your basic bipedal, almost human-in-a-suit characters."

Getting the aliens to appear somewhat humanoid meant Quiet Man would have to pay special attention to the characters' faces and mouths, especially during close-up shots in which they spoke their lines. Typically for such a project, Shirk says, Quiet Man would animate the characters using manual keyframing methods in Avid Technology's Softimage 3D. "In the software we'd build a facial rig and a library of phonetic shapes, and then animate through those shapes," he explains.

Although this method results in believable facial and lip-sync animation, it can take a great deal of time, the luxury of which, Shirk says, the three-person team didn't have. "We had about nine weeks to complete this project, and we ate up five of those in the design phase, coming up with a look for the characters that made everyone happy."
The artists modeled the aliens in Phoenix Tools' MetaMesh Extreme, a subdivision package that provided a seamless technique.

Instead of using traditional animation, the group decided to test face2face's new alter EGO software (going in to beta at the time), which promised to simplify and speed up the facial animation process. Available as a plug-in to Softimage, Discreet's 3D Studio Max, and Alias|Wave front's Maya, alterEGO uses visual recognition techniques to capture the facial movements of a performer as he or she speaks lines of dialog, but it doesn't re quire that markers be placed on the person's face. Instead, a standard video camera captures the performer's face and lips while he or she is speaking, and the recording is processed by the software for automatic lip sync to a selected animated face model.

"I thought they had an interesting approach in terms of using a noninvasive procedure to record and capture motion, and it resulted in a high-quality capture," says Shirk.

After coming up with the look of the aliens, the team performed character modeling using Phoenix Tools' MetaMesh Extreme, a subdivision modeling plug-in to Soft image, running on Intergraph NT-based workstations. "We took a subdivision rather than a NURBS approach because these are basically little naked spacemen; there were no good places on their bodies to hide seams," Shirk says. The models were then surfaced, texture-mapped, and set up in Adobe Systems' Photoshop and Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint 3D.

For the facial animation, the performers were first videotaped saying their lines, and the videotape was transferred for processing to the Intergraph machines running alterEGO. To process the sequence, the animators, looking at the first frame of the video, used mouse clicks to create temporary reference points on the performers' eyes and the corners of their mouths. The software then tracked the movement of the reference points in relation to each other as the sequence played, and output a frame-by-frame capture of the key facial definition points. "We applied those files to the models one after the other and evaluated how they looked," Shirk says.

Because the characters' faces are shaped differently from human faces, some modification was necessary. For instance, the characters have no nose, their mouths are set differently from that of a human, and they have a big brow ridge instead of eyebrows. "Using alterEGO, we turned the corners of the mouth, changed the shape of the mouth, and accentuated syllables in the software without compromising its functionality," he says. "Being able to build our own control structures on top of the face2face data and then modify that data was great because we could change what the face was doing and still have full control over the output."
With alterEGO, animators easily tweaked the facial animation data to suit the aliens' facial features.

According to Shirk, he was pleased with the results they achieved using alterEGO-with one caveat. "This spot is short. So we probably could've animated the faces in Softimage in the same amount of time because setting up the alter EGO rigging takes about as much time as building controls in Soft image," he explains.

Following client approval, the animation was rendered in Mental Images' Mental Ray and tracked in Softimage 3D. Then the characters were composited into the live-action footage in Discreet's Flame.

According to Shirk, "Intelligent Life" stands out from other Quiet Man spots in that the toys needed to be more prominent than the 3D characters. "The client wanted the characters to be in the commercial, but they wanted them to be incredibly blown away by the toy, so we had to make the characters' expressions look believable," he concludes. "The character performance we got from the face2face software helped us do that. And the control we were able to maintain over the data ensured that the performance didn't upstage the toy being advertised."

Audrey Doyle, a contributing editor to Computer Graphics World, is a freelance writer and editor based in Boston. She can be reached at

alterEGO, face2face Animation, (