Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 4 (April 2001)

A Tiger in Transition

Animators give a cartoon icon a 3D makeover

By Karen Moltenbrey

It's not often that a highly recognizable tiger changes its stripes. So when modelers and animators at Smoke & Mirrors 3D in London were asked to turn Kellogg's Tony the Tiger into a 3D character, the transitioning task proved quite challenging.

For nearly half a decade, Tony has appeared on Frosted Flakes cereal boxes and has starred in countless commercials worldwide, often appearing as a children's sports coach, trying his "paw" at everything from football to wrestling. Yet his international fame has not come without problems. From Texas to Tokyo, Tony has suffered a lack of uniformity in advertising campaigns, as different regional cel artists attempted to replicate him-an issue that could be resolved through 3D technology.

"We were approached by J. Walter Thompson, Kellogg's [then-regional] advertising company, about the pros and cons of taking Tony from 2D to 3D," explains Andrew Howes, head of 3D at Smoke & Mirrors. "One of the major issues we spotted during our research was that Frosties commercials were made around the world, and Tony always looked slightly different in them, especially the shape of his head. This was also true for the package fronts. Sometimes the differences were quite extensive. Creating a 3D master model of Tony would ensure uniformity for the character, no matter how or where it was used."
Using 3D software, Smoke & Mirrors helped Kellogg's Tony the Tiger change his traditional stripes for the new millennium. (Images courtesy of Smoke & Mirrors.)

Although creating the initial model and the first 3D commercial would be expensive, the cost eventually would be absorbed as the model was reused, notes Howes. Furthermore, creating an animation library of Tony's movements from subsequent projects would help defray the cost of future projects. "Tony has a lot of standard moves. So if someone in Spain would animate a basketball throw, that would go into the library for later use by someone making another commercial in France, for instance," he says. "The great thing about 3D is that the animation movement is independent of the camera moves and lip sync, so you can have a facial animation with a sound library and a body animation library, and both would be independent of each other."

While the ad agency was convinced that the transition would be effective, they had to also persuade Kellogg. At stake was a new look to a familiar face that would be featured in a series of James Bond/ Batman-style commercials. "We had to deliver an epic set of 3D-driven commercials as well as a unified digital kit of parts that would enable the new Tony to have a completely homogenous look across all potential future media-TV, the Web, and games," says Howes.

The most challenging aspect of the project, notes Howes, was creating the initial model, which involved a tremendous amount of research. Besides viewing an extensive archive of Frosted Flakes commercials, the group also reviewed a "design bible" from Kellogg that contained various sketches and images of Tony. From this reference material, a 2D artist worked with the 3D team to produce hand-drawn sketches of possible new looks-from replicating the 2D Tony to a completely restyled character that looked like an actual tiger.

"We knew that getting to 3D would be difficult because no one has ever seen Tony as a 3D character, and that would always be difficult for the folks at Kellogg and the agency, who were used to seeing him in 2D," explains Howes. To ease the transition, the group used three-dimensional white wax maquettes of Tony and his new nemesis Cheetah, to work out kinks before creating digital models. "This intermediate stage, before the 3D work began, was crucial," he adds. "It helped everyone concentrate on the development of the new look and address issues like the form of the characters, the tiger stripes, and the size relationship of Tony and Cheetah."
Turning Tony into a 3D model meant that some parts of his body, such as the back of his head, would be seen for the very first time.

Kellogg opted for a 3D Tony that closely resembled the original character, but the company still had to approve certain designs for parts of Tony that had always been hidden from view, such as the back of his head. They also had to standardize on certain aspects of the 2D model that were in constant flux because of the visual tricks and cheats used by 2D animators. According to Howes, some of these techniques-such as squashes and stretches of form, and the way the stripe patterns and details move across the character's body and limbs-would not translate to a 3D model.

"When people would draw him in 2D, a stripe would always come around from behind his arm and finish at the front in a point, no matter what angle you viewed him from," Howes explains. "In 3D, you can't just animate textures on the surface of a model as the camera moves around. We needed a new stripe pattern that would be fixed to the outside of his body that is locked to his body like it is on an actual tiger."

Once the major design issues were settled, the group at Smoke & Mirrors digitally scanned the refined maquette, which was used as a reference for building the 3D computer model in Alias| Wavefront's Maya. Simultaneously, the modelers also created the brand-new Cheetah, who would costar with Tony in the new commercials. For texturing both models, the group used Adobe Systems' Photoshop and Illustrator for building textures, and Right Hemisphere's DeepPaint for applying them to the model.

Following the 3D transformation, the new Tony was ready for his television debut. In the 60-second commercial called "Tied Up," Tony is pitted against the evil Dr. Cheetah, who is trying to steal the secret Frosted Flakes formula. The action occurs within miniature sets, which also include various 3D gadgets the likes of which would appeal to any spy or superhero. The live-action bluescreen elements were composited using Discreet's Inferno.

The crux of the commercial is the fast-paced chase between the two characters, which the animators, led by supervisor Jason McDonald, choreographed using a 3D animatic, also created in Maya. The group then used the storyboard both to coordinate the live-action photography and to serve as the main reference for the 3D team as they developed each shot in terms of the required action and timing.

Using Maya, the team then animated the face-off between Tony and Cheetah but found that sticking to a master model for the initial commercial was more difficult than they had realized. "As we got further into the job, we had to think about how Tony would do certain things, then translate that into 3D. As a result, we were constantly changing the master model to accommodate the animation," says Howes. "By the end of the commercial, we ended up with about 10 different Tonys." Because of time restraints, the group couldn't update the master model after each small change, so they would just alter the copy used for the shot. Then, when the project was completed, a digital artist spent about a month incorporating the various specialized body parts into the master model. "Most of these changes had to do with how his muscles moved under his skin as he moved, and how his skin moved over the surface of his body," Howes adds.
The three-dimensional Tony, shown with his nemesis Cheetah, made his television debut in a James Bond-style commercial airing in the UK.

As the commercial neared conclusion, the group used Unique ID's CakeS asset-tracking system to post completed shots on the Internet for director Alex Winter's approval. This enabled Winter to view and comment on shots daily while he was in the US filming other projects.

To ensure that Tony didn't lose his recognition factor in the transition, the ad agency and Smoke & Mirrors tested the new Tony model by asking school children in the UK if they recognized the character. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, supermarkets in the UK are just now transitioning from the old box covers to the new version, and Howes says he was surprised at how similar the 2D and 3D versions of Tony look. "It's definitely Tony the Tiger. We just gave him a modern makeover."

Maya, Alias|Wavefront (www.alias|