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

Village People

'Toon counterparts of real actors search for romance in the East Village

By Karen Moltenbrey

What would you get if you combined the action and story line of HBO's hit show Sex in the City with the look of an Andy Warhol painting? Something that resembles Avenue Amy, a uniquely animated television series that appears on the Oxygen channel as part of the station's X-Chromosome programming lineup.

Avenue Amy, produced by Curious Pictures in New York, chronicles the dating exploits of Amy, a 23-year-old hip urbanite from New York's East Village who is constantly on the prowl for romance but ends up attracted to the loser du jour. The show, created by director Joan Raspo and writer/actress Amy Sohn, is based on an autobiographical column written by Sohn for the New York Post, called "Female Trouble," which provides comical, colorful commentary about the complicated world of dating.

"Every week I'd read her column, in which she would give euphemisms for the male characters she would date and the places she would go," says Raspo. "Amy's writing style is incredibly cinematic, like a script. As I was reading it, in my mind I'd have a picture of a cartoon-like world that [partially] separated the real identity of the people and places from those she talked about in her column." Raspo then approached Sohn about creating an animated sitcom based on the column content and Raspo's own conceptual visualization about that world.
Using a unique animation style, Curious Pictures brought the descriptive world of writer/columnist Amy Sohn to digital life in the television series Avenue Amy. (Images courtesy Curious Pictures)

"I had a clear idea as to the kind of animation the show should have. I didn't want it to be cel, and I didn't want it to be character-based in a goofy way," explains Raspo. "Rather, I wanted it to resemble reality but with a distorted look between the live action and animation-similar to how Andy Warhol would shoot a portrait and later alter it in the silk screen process."

Developing a technique that would help Raspo realize her vision in a compelling yet efficient way was left to the computer graphics department at Curious. According to Lewis Kofsky, visual effects supervisor for Avenue Amy, the team spent months in R&D, at times going down blind alleys. "We played with just about everything we have in our toolbox-motion capture, pure rotoscoping, and all kinds of new software and hardware," he says. "We knew we were going to produce many minutes of animation a week on a production budget, so we had to find an economical way of achieving the look. Our solution ultimately takes the expressiveness and nuances of live-action performance and mixes them with the magic of animation, walking the line between both worlds."
Animators turn Amy Sohn into her digital alter ego with help from makeup and clothing that places bold lines on the physical actress.

The result is a mixture of multiple techniques-live action, cel animation, 3D computer graphics, and compositing-to produce a gritty, downtown live-action production with an animated cel finish.

Avenue Amy is filmed with real actors performing in front of greenscreen sets, with Sohn in the role of Amy. Because each show is entirely story-driven, the remaining actors are not cast until Sohn and Raspo have finished writing the scripts. "In this year's episodes, we've created a real ensemble cast that's not often seen in animated shows," notes Raspo. In addition to great acting ability and on-screen chemistry, the cast is chosen based on how they will look once their images are "treated," or turned into the desired cel look.

The actors wear unusual makeup and clothing during the film shoot to help cut down on the amount of cel animation that has to be added to the images later on. Working closely with the animators and cel artists, makeup artist Jane Choi strategically places black lines on the bodies of the actors to add more definition to their hands, collarbones, nostrils, ears, etc. "Every line we draw on the actors means one less cel line that has to be added in postproduction," Kofsky explains.

With one exception, all the characters on the live-action set have black hair, which is usually dyed for the shoot. In special cases, an actor will have blue hair, to add a different color to the mix. Sometimes black facial hair is added or painted on as well. Sohn, whose real hair is brown and curly, wears a wig of straight, shoulder-length black hair. "I wanted to stylize her as a younger That Girl (Marlo Thomas)," says Raspo.
Avenue Amy uses a variety of digital techniques to turn real actors into digital characters. This progression is shown in the images, as (first) actors are filmed against a greenscreen. A wireframe background is added (second), and textured (third). The c

The actors are then dressed in chroma-key colors-blues, reds, etc.-so they easily can be delineated from the greenscreen environment. Each outfit also contains an extensive a mount of black ribbing stitched around the edges and areas where definition is desirable. "On the set, it looks like some crazy cartoon world," Raspo says. "But the actors have done a wonderful job getting used to the oddness of it all and acclimating themselves to a strange green world on the set, where everything they interact with is green or black."

The live action is shot on mini digital video cameras, with a live feed streaming the untreated video straight into both a Macintosh G4 and a video mixer. As a result, the director and artists are able to see on the set how the characters are going to look in their final treatment as the video is run directly into Adobe Systems' After Effects. Simultaneously, lead 3D artist Jeeyun Sung delivers 3D computer-generated backgrounds that are composited in real time behind the characters.

"Adding the CG environments to the live action as it is filmed enables the director and actors to get a sense for the space in which they are working," says Sung. "It also saves countless hours of matchmoving, as we are able to work with the [director of photography] on the set to determine our framings and match the boards that Joan [Raspo] had worked out in advance."

The digital sets, modeled and rendered in Discreet's 3D Studio Max, are derived from digital photographs of actual New York City locations chosen by Raspo and Sohn. All the environments start out as photorealistic images, but some objects are then selectively stylized, resulting in a unique but deliberately conflicting look. "Sometimes we take the original source photography and really play around with proportions, dimensions, colors, and moods," explains Kofsky. "Some environments are just like the real ones, while others are montages of elements from all over New York."

Once the show is "in the can," the off-line editing is done on an Avid system. Then the digital makeover happens in Adobe Systems' After Effects. The animators change skin tones and clothing colors to produce the cartoon-quality tones and hues. "We load up the [After Effects] projects that we created while on the shoot and have an entire 11 minute show roughly treated and online within two days," says Sung.
Artists built the TV show's virtual sets in 3D Studio Max, using photographs of actual New York City locations for reference. The realistic 3D backgrounds were then given a cartoon-like look with After Effects.

"While we have the basic look down to an automated process, we spend most of our time finessing the look in post production," Kofsky points out. Some artists work on adjusting the detail in the facial expressions and the shapes of the characters using keying techniques. Concurrently, a team of cel animators works in After Effects, doing traditional rotoscoping, where they have live action on one monitor and treated footage on another monitor. "In this way, we can add detail where the automated treatment falls short," explains lead cel artist Vanessa van der Baan. "This work adds more definition and depth to the character's bodies and clothing, and also gives the entire show a more handcrafted look."

To accomplish the desired shading for the now-CG imagery, the group devised its own technique accomplished through multiple passes in Studio Max. "We mix between the cartoon-like renders that we get out of Digimation's Illustrate and the lighting and depth passes that we get from the scan-line renderer inside 3D Studio," explains Kofsky. This mixing of processes enables the group to achieve both the atmospheric effects found in a smoky bar, and the hand-drawn style for a poster hanging on the wall.

The last touches in crafting the cartoon world are done in the final composite. Static extras are drawn in Adobe Illustrator, based on photographs of friends, colleagues, and crew members. Graphic treatments, effects, and transitions are rendered in After Effects. Then, the final footage is retimed in After Effects to play back more like animation. "Traditional animation is often done at 24 frames a second," explains Kofsky, where every other frame is drawn and held for two frames, resulting in full-motion animation at film speed. "We try to match this look in our treatment as well as accentuate the performance of the characters by retiming their movements."

Curious just finished filming the live action for two new 11-minute episodes of Avenue Amy, looking toward making a season of half-hour shows. Last year, the group produced the 5-minute pilot along with five other 5-minute shorts.

According to Raspo, this season's story lines are more developed, as is the look of the production. "[Kofsky] encouraged us to test and retest our makeup techniques, and each time we discovered something new that saved us more time," she says.

"One of the intriguing things about the new episodes is that it's sometimes difficult to tell for sure what's real and what's animation-exactly where that line is," Raspo adds. "Some times a blink of an eye will look real, yet the way a shirt falls across the person's body looks like it was hand sketched. It's that mixing of opposites that makes the show unique and fun to watch."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior associate editor for Computer Graphics World.

Adobe Systems *
Digimation *