Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 7 (July 2001)

Reality Art

Cel characters in a museum installation yearn for a better life in a 3D world

By Audrey Doyle

Fueled by viewers who have become jaded by the predictable story lines characteristic of most television fare these days, reality shows such as Survivor, Boot Camp, The Real World, The Mole, and Temptation Island have exploded onto the prime-time landscape and are enjoying enormous success. For those looking for a more cultured alternative to reality television, however, artists Janine Cirincione and Michael Ferraro have created a multimedia installation called "RL," which stands for "Real Life."

Starring a pair of disgruntled 2D animated characters who long for an idyllic 3D world that's just beyond their reach, "RL" brings the concept of "reality on public display" to the art world. "This is animation's answer to reality programming," Cirincione says. "It is reality TV, in which the viewers are voyeurs, observing the real lives of real individuals. In this case, the individuals are cartoons."

Cirincione and Ferraro are the founders of a New York City-based studio called Possible Worlds, which they formed in 1994 to produce interactive entertainment. Using a proprietary 2D/3D real-time animation system built around Sense8's WorldToolKit and running primarily on SGI workstations, the artists have created both live and broadcast performances of well-known characters such as Beavis and Butt-head, Daria, and Bugs Bunny. They have also provided animation and interactive design for clients in the broadcast and Internet arenas.
For "RL," an interactive art installation, animators created 2D cel characters that react in real time to stimuli from the surrounding environment that's registered by sensors.

In addition to this work, the artists also are firmly entrenched in the art world, having exhibited at The Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, The New Museum in New York City, and The Power Plant in Toronto, among other galleries.

While their previous projects have incorporated interactivity, multimedia, and virtual worlds, "RL" is different in that it consists of 2D digital characters that react to cues from their surrounding environment.

The primary component of the "RL" exhibit is a 2D animation of a man and woman sitting in a living room littered with garbage and infested with bugs. The sequence is displayed on a 14-inch LCD screen that hangs about 2 feet away from the wall in the exhibit space, making it appear as though the characters are floating in midair.

As Cirincione explains, the characters in the installation are living the barest, most minimal lives possible. "They are basically sitting around and chitchatting in the way that people who are too familiar with each other do," she says. "They have been trapped in their room for 25 years, watching television, fantasizing about what their lives could have been like, should have been like, had things been different."

"The characters are designed so that they give the appearance of living in the gallery all the time," Ferraro adds. "We've set this up so that it's like the viewer has stopped in and caught a moment in their lives."

Facing the characters approximately 12 feet away is a 40-inch screen onto which a 3D animated virtual world is projected. As the characters sit in the living room and talk, they look across to this vista, which represents a life they can never achieve and a world they can never be a part of.

The characters in the installation react in real time to stimuli from the environment. To achieve this, the artists placed a series of sensors throughout the exhibit that measure the number and location of people viewing the installation, and detect their movements. A control module, built by the artists, collects the sensor data and sends it to the studio's proprietary real-time 2D animation system, which then drives the movements of the 2D characters based on the level of activity in the space.
In the museum installation, the cel characters can peer out of their confined space at this 3D vista, which represents an idealistic life that the couple cannot attain.

According to Ferraro, the sensors can tell whether viewers are casually walking through the space, or whether they have actually come into the space and have walked up to the LCD screen to watch the characters. While the characters appear disinterested toward people who are casually passing by, they become much more agitated-exhibiting various facial expressions, drinking and smoking frenetically, and talking quickly-when they sense that people are close, or that there are a lot of people in the room.

To create the installation, the artists began by designing sketches of the characters and the environment and determining the overall objective of the piece. After creating pencil tests of the characters' animated moves, the artists scanned all of the designs into a Macintosh G4 Cube and assembled them into a database. After approving the characters' movements, the artists inked the cels and painted them in Photoshop.

Next, they used some of the components in their animation system to build the control module that gives the characters the ability to spontaneously react to viewers in the space. The artists then modeled, animated, and rendered the projected 3D animated environment using custom software.

Cirincione adds that "RL" also has led to a number of additional exhibits, one of which will be based on the "RL" characters and is scheduled to open at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, this September.

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

Images courtesy Possible Worlds.