Animated Angels
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 8 (August 2003)

Animated Angels

By Courtney E. Howard

When Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle opens, moviegoers immediately are thrust into the action. The Angels are in Mongolia, in the midst of their latest mission. And from the start, millions of viewers fully understand their quest, thanks to Charlie's Angels Animated Adventures, a series of six Web-based animations that serve as a prequel to the feature film.

"The animations end exactly where the movie begins," says Kevin VanHook, vice president and general manager of Forum Visual Effects and the executive producer of Charlie's Angels Animated Adventures. "Fans who have seen them know the story behind the mission."

In the Web animations, the Angels are assigned the task of tracking down Agent Ray Carter, one of two men who carry titanium rings encoded with the FBI Witness Protection Program database. "A plot involving these rings is explored in the film," explains VanHook. "But in our story line, the bad guys are busily moving Carter around, which forces the Angels, as well as the Web viewers, to go on a whirlwind adventure as they chase him around the globe."

"This project is unique in that it is the first animated story line that leads directly up to the first frame of a feature film, to my knowledge," notes VanHook. He and his team—including 3D animation supervisor Chadd Cole, storyboard director Frank Paur, and compositing supervisor Steve Fahey—were approached by producer Paul Fairchild and Media Revolution, who were looking for a unique and entertaining way to promote the film online. When Animated Adventures was fast-tracked, Forum got involved to design the characters, oversee the script, ensure that it could be animated, and produce it from the ground up.

Animated Adventures also is unique in its look and feel, courtesy of the combined talents of VanHook and the Forum team. With a background in writing and producing comic books, including King Features' Flash Gordon comic strip, VanHook later made the transition to a live-action director as well as a visual effects artist. Just as VanHook's experience meshes traditional and digital arts, Animated Adventures blends a 2D comic-book style with 3D elements and environments.

VanHook admits that although Forum employed several common tools of the trade—such as Newtek's LightWave 3D and Adobe Systems' After Effects and Photoshop—they did things a little differently than the norm. "Everyone in our group was an artist before a technician, generally," he says. "They know how to paint and draw and so forth, and so we had the ability to take the best of both worlds.

"The look is definitely in the realm of comic books," VanHook continues. "With my background, that style choice seemed logical, but more than anything it was to take advantage of what could be done in terms of a traditionally painted background in animation. We wanted the ability to move around in three dimensions, and still retain a hand-created look."

To mimic the hand-drawn lines of a comic book, Forum added distinct but muted edges around each object and character in Animated Adventures. "We would bring opacity back a bit so it wouldn't be a stark black, thick outline, but it would give you a subtle cue that it looks like it has been drawn," VanHook explains.

Forum created virtually all of the backgrounds for the project in 3D, as well as a number of vehicles and props with which the characters interact. Rather than use a cell shader to flatten out the 3D backgrounds, the artists mapped the geometry with actual paintings. "This method gave the 3D a painterly look that blended well with the 2D animation, while retaining the richness and depth of 3D," says VanHook. Moreover, through the use of digital painting techniques and a variety of watercolor filters, Forum manipulated the textures applied in the 3D environment. "In LightWave, we took off all specularity and anything that would give away a traditional CG aspect. We were turning off things that computers normally excel at because we were trying to get much more of a flat, comic-book style."

Flanked by unique fire, lighting, and texturing effects, the seamless blend of 3D and 2D art and technology is evident in "Chapter Two: Viva Las Angels."

The process of producing Animated Adventures spanned five months. Nearly everything was done in-house, with the exception of some of the 2D animation, which was created by Koko, a long-standing animation studio in Korea.

One challenge the Forum team faced with regard to the 2D animation was in creating likenesses with which everyone, the actresses themselves as well as Columbia Pictures, felt comfortable. "Animation lends itself best to stylization and fantasy," VanHook explains. "We weren't doing photorealistic animation, so coming up with a style that not only accommodated animation, but also maintained their likenesses was a challenge. If we were doing something more stylized and cartoony, we could play up that." The character designers were effective at picking up on the actresses' signature traits—including the broad grin of Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu's subtle feline characteristics—and hinting at them without overexaggerating.

To achieve the look of the talent, Forum brought in character designers from its regular shows, including King of the Hill and The Simpsons, and other artistic colleagues. "Bernard Chang of Media Revolution had the opportunity to sit with Lucy Liu," VanHook says. "She was the most difficult likeness to capture in cartoon form. Once that was done, we were able to translate it into line art.

The combination of digitally painted backgrounds and 3D elements in Animated Adventures packs a punch in "Chapter Three: Jackpot Angels."

"At the end of the day, each character was actually a hybrid," states VanHook. Forum primarily used bodies designed by Frank Paur, heads created by Bernard Chang, and everything streamlined together by Eric Wight. "Once we had that, we got the go ahead. We knew we had the look down."

Complete with a Harrier Jump Jet and a Russian MIG, "Chapter Five: Angels' Flight" includes a majority, roughly 70 percent, of 3D imagery.

The approach of marrying 2D and 3D is as innovative as it is complex. "We're dealing with a hybrid of 2D and 3D information, trying to blend them as seamlessly as possible and still have the advantage of 3D," says VanHook. In instances when a character was to interact with a 3D object, Forum provided the 3D element first, without the characters in place. If the scene involved a complex move, they found it easier to animate the object in place by putting it on a polygon and placing it in the environment.

"From the animatics to the approved edited episodes, we were able take advantage of the latest technology and, at the same time, keep a hand-drawn, hand-painted look," notes VanHook. "Once people who were interested in animation or the film checked it out, they tended to be hooked."

Courtney E. Howard is a senior technical editor of Computer Graphics World.

Adobe Systems
Microsoft Corporation

Sony Pictures Mobile, the mobile licensing and publishing group of Sony Pictures Digital Networks and a team of roughly 12 people, released a suite of mobile entertainment services around the Charlie's Angels property. The company offers ringtones stemming from the original TV show and first and second movies, as well as images from the film that can be used as wallpaper, screensavers, or picture messages on a mobile phone. Even more interesting is the new downloadable game, Charlie's Angels: Road Cyclone, produced by Sony Pictures Mobile in conjunction with external developer Centerscore.

Although the game does not incorporate the likenesses of the talent in the film, the use of classic Charlie's Angels theme music lends the game realism and authenticity. "Going forward, we're working very carefully to make sure we can integrate the talent likenesses and scenes from the movie into the games as well, so that we can bring more cinematic realism to the games," says Rio Caraeff, vice president of Sony Pictures Mobile.

Charlie's Angels: Road Cyclone has the distinction of being the single largest distribution of the company's games to date. Available in roughly 44 international markets and eight languages, it can be played on a variety of phones and handsets.

Caraeff admits that games are a large part of Sony Pictures Mobile's work right now. "Games really have taken off as a popular consumer behavior on mobile phones. Games and ringtones are driving the market in terms of what defines mobile entertainment today. Mobile games are not a substitute for a PC or a PlayStation; it's an entirely new medium with which to have mobile entertainment in the anytime, anywhere aspect that a phone provides." —CEH

Despite its compact size, Charlie's Angels: Road Cyclone provides a mobile experience having authentic audio, realistic imagery, and ease of use.
Images courtesy Sony Pictures Digital Networks 2003.

Excitement surrounding the release of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle was fueled further by the availability of the online game Charlie's Angels: Angel X. After downloading the game from, players assume the persona of Angel X, Townsend Detective Agency's newest recruit. Her mission: negotiate five levels, bypass the Thin Man's army of assassins, and destroy his secret lair.

"The game is related to the story line of the movie," says Spencer Hunt, director/product developer for Sony Pictures Digital Networks' Advanced Platform Group and a producer on Angel X. "The writer for the movie, Stephanie Savage, also wrote the game's premise, which is a pre-story about the Thin Man, the featured nemesis in both the first and second Charlie's Angels movies, that bridges the first and second films."

Such network-delivered games, or games that are sent over e-distribution, are the focus of the Advanced Platform Group at Sony Pictures Digital Networks. "It is an emerging technology and emerging business to us," says Tim Chambers, senior vice president and general manager of the Advanced Platform Group and executive in charge of production on the Angel X game. Like other online games, Angel X can be purchased online, downloaded to a PC, and played on the Web. Consumers even can download and use a free trial version, which provides access to the full version after a key is purchased to unlock the program.

Despite these similarities, Angel X is not an average online gaming experience. "Most Web gaming is very basic, and we think there is room to expand this consumer behavior to more ad-vanced levels," says Chambers. His intention was to supply consumers with an experience that transcends a typical Web game. "Angel X has been designed to be as high quality as a commercial game offered by traditional packaged media." To achieve this goal, Chambers and the Advanced Platform Group relied on Discreet's 3ds max, Adobe Photoshop, and, on the development side, Microsoft Dev. Studio. They also called on the services of game developer 7 Studios. "We specifically chose a developer whose forte was console work. The company took the core of its console game engine and worked with us to add such specifics as highly compressed textures, highly compressed audio, and specific game design and game art."

"Many web-delivered engines try to do 3D, but a number of constraints brings them back to the 28.8k modem days," says Hunt. Geared toward 56k connections and above, Angel X aims to improve the ex-perience so that it resembles a $60 commercial PC game or console game. "With any console game, you can fit so much onto a CD that code can get sloppy quickly," notes Hunt."The engineers really don't have to take the extra step of optimizing the space that the code uses. The engine itself was adapted in some ways to work with the Web." Although it was streamlined, it still maintains the console-level functionality.

Because today's market bears a mix of broadband and narrow-band users, size is a typical constraint of a Web game. The Advanced Platform Group was faced with the challenge of maintaining high quality in a size that is both downloadable and network-friendly, which translates to roughly 25mb. "We have been working on building technologies that can facilitate the download of high-quality, highly compressed games," admits Chambers. Although Angel X features the compressed textures, audio, and game elements typical of Web games, it is innovative in that, once downloaded to a computer system, its playback looks comparable to a PC game or console game.

The team had to build an e-commerce wrapper around the online game. "This is, in fact, a really important part of the delivery mechanism," adds Hunt. "Downloading from the Web is nearly a step away from just emailing it to a friend. It was important to us that the game wouldn't be purchased and then freely distributed. In this case, we worked with Trymedia to make sure that if somebody purchased the game they were actually able and encouraged to give it to a friend, and the friend could play it in trial mode until he or she purchased it."

Charlie's Angels: Angel X is not Sony Pictures' first network-delivered game, nor is it the first to coincide with the release of a major motion picture. "Sony previously developed a network game around Men in Black II, so this is actually our second effort," says Chambers. "And we definitely anticipate more to come." —CEH