Virtual Clay
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 5 (May 2003)

Virtual Clay

By Lisa Taylor

You're back in school and have been assigned a group project. After countless cups of coffee and lots of chitchat you find the deadline approaching and there is still no consensus on anything. It is time to go live with your presentation, and you have to "wing it." And, as if this weren't bad enough, you have to deal with one over-enthusiastic, inept project partner and another who is under-motivated and short-tempered.

This scenario describes the theme of "The Presentators," a series of five 90-second CG interstitials airing on Nickelodeon UK that follows the trials of a hapless trio who find themselves battling technology, fate, and each other while hosting a live television talk show. The series, produced by the UK's Aardman Animations, uses simple animation techniques to capture the malaise, youthful enthusiasm, and frustration of each "actor."

"The Presentators" is based on "Deadline," a short animation directed by Stephan Marjoram. For that project, Marjoram, along with Dan Lane and Brian McGrath, each modeled a character after himself, and then animated and voiced that character. The trio reunited for "The Presentators," only this time artist Steve Blake animated McGrath's character since McGrath was busy working on another project. McGrath did, however, perform the voice work.

While more famous for its claymation projects—including the feature film Chicken Run and two Oscar-winning shorts starring Wallace and Gromit—Aardman has been using computer graphics since the mid-1990s. Today, the studio's CG department is 17 animators strong and is producing shorts and commercials, including "The Presentators," which received an award for Best Script at the 2003 Imagina Festival.

For "The Presentators," the three animators had a mere 10 days to plan, animate, render, and composite more than a minute of high-quality lip-synced animation. "It may sound like plenty of time to some, but we're sticklers for detail," notes Marjoram. "Also, because we had made the unusual decision to each animate a specific character, we had to do rough comps every few days to see how the characters compared to one another. Often, one of us had done too much and had to go back and tone down the performance."

The group did all the modeling, animation, and rendering in Alias|Wavefront's Maya 4, and the compositing with Adobe Systems' After Effects. The artists used basic NURBS spheres to create the character models, seen only from the waist up, making them simple to build, animate, and texture. For the lip sync, the team used Maya's BlendShapes feature to animate the progression of each character's mouth as it moved between phonemes. The artists also spent a good deal of time customizing and creating new eye shapes to convey the required range of emotion.

According to Marjoram, the Aardman CG department is not simply mimicking the look of the company's traditional clay-model animation with "The Presentators." Rather, it is trying to apply digital techniques to enhance the appeal, timing, and strong design for which Aardman's claymation films are known.

Aardman Animations used Maya to create a claymation-like look for "The Presentators." Images © 2002 Nickelodeon UK. Courtesy Aardman Animations.

Aardman Animations is also extending this style with new projects, including a full-length Wallace and Gromit feature film from Dreamworks, to be released in 2005, and a series of idents featuring a new set of digital characters known as the Blobs.

Lisa Taylor is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada. She can be reached at

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