Digital Improv
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 1 (Jan 2005)

Digital Improv

Drew Carey, known for his comedic edge, is introducing prime-time audiences to the amusing side of animation. For the past few television seasons, Carey has garnered additional laughs from his studio audiences by incorporating humorous CG-augmented moments into selective segments of his live-action comedy The Drew Carey Show (see “Computer Crash,” April 2003, pg. 6). This season, he has created an entirely new type of comedy show in which digital imagery is a main part of every act.

Called Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show, the new program blends “improv” animation with the same type of improv comedy found in Carey’s Whose Line Is It Anyway?, during which comedians perform an improvised comedy skit centered around a topic that’s suggested by an audience member. But for the Green Screen Show, instead of performing the sketches on a regular stage, the dozen or so comics get their laughs on a greenscreen set, sans props and backgrounds. But that accounts for only half the show’s fun.

After the program’s performance-comedy segments were filmed and edited this past spring, animation directors were let in on the jokes. First, executive producer Ron Diamond, head of animation company Acme Filmworks, posted QuickTime videos of the skits on a site accessible to invited production facilities. If directors wanted to bid on a certain sketch, they would submit a proposal describing their animation style and creative vision. Carey and the show’s others producers would then review the submissions and choose one that they believed brought out the most humor in the piece, explains Harold Moss, creative director at New York City-based FlickerLab, which so far has done two animated segments for the series.

“In the proposal, you merely have to commit to a visual style, or image treatment, and you just see where you can go with it,” says Moss.

The animation, like the comedy, is improvised, in the sense that the producers stay clear of the visual and conceptual processes at this stage. As a result, there is no particular animation style associated with the show-sometimes it contains 3D CGI, while other times it features 2D imagery and even photo montages, all of which are composited into the live action.

Likewise, the concepts are original, improvised by the various facilities. This, in turn, gives each routine a novel feel in addition to an individualized look. “Our intention is to find directors across the globe who can provide unique animations, both stylistically and artistically, and who will elaborate on Drew’s form of audience-suggested improv,” explains Diamond.

While the comedians perform under pressure, their roles are done in approximately five minutes, the average length of a skit. Conversely, the animators have six weeks to finish their portion. “Once we get into the process, there is a lot of interaction between us, the producers at Acme Filmworks, and Drew Carey,” says Moss. “But it remains the [animation studio] director’s job to carry out the facility’s original vision. And once that vision is committed to, there’s no turning back and no second-guessing.”

Acme Filmworks begins the postproduction process by pulling the greenscreen chroma keys on all the segments inside Discreet’s Flame before sending the live footage to the animation facilities. This produces uniform color channels, enabling the facility to achieve one of the few “consistent” looks of the show.

At FlickerLab, the team generates a QuickTime version of the file and imports it into Macromedia’s Flash, a format that is expanding beyond its previous Web-only medium boundaries, Moss points out. This version serves as the group’s reference track for building its animation. Meanwhile, the artists create storyboards, working out the visual jokes with Carey and company. “One of the challenges is that we want the animation to look good and be funny,” Moss says. “But the stars of the show are the actors, so we must be careful not to overwhelm or undercut the improv comedy with animated gags.”

One of FlickerLab’s segments, called “Catch That Knife,” is a prop-filled routine created with Flash animation. Carey came up with the concept of a game show, and someone from the audience suggested the cutlery angle, resulting in the so-called contestants competing in a knife-catching contest. “The idea was already funny, so our challenge was to keep it in good taste, without it being too bloody or gory,” says Moss, “yet ‘bad’ enough to still be funny.”

The digital characters were developed on paper, then inked and painted in Flash before they were approved. The team created the rough animation keyframes for the characters-in this instance, sexy nurses-using Flash running on Apple Power Mac G5s with Wacom tablets. Then, after crafting backgrounds in Flash and Adobe’s Photoshop, the group pulled the digital imagery together, compositing it in Adobe’s After Effects, and filled out the backdrops and added props, including various knives.

Because this is an improvised show, the actors on stage are not blocked during filming, so the cameraperson must try to frame them in the shot as they pace and bounce around the stage, just like comedians often do during their routines. “They aren’t thinking about us poor animators and what this will be like when we try to composite the imagery into the scene,” jokes Moss, who, like other directors, is used to manipulating the smallest detail on a typical greenscreen set. Because the cameras rarely remain stationary during the performances, the team had to stabilize the video, which FlickerLab achieved in After Effects, “right up to the last render,” Moss says.
CG has a starring role in Drew Carey’s unique improv comedy TV program. First, comedians are filmed on a greenscreen stage (top), then CG is added to complete the skits (second) appearing on the show.

The rapid movement of the actors also made it difficult to animate the props, often requiring the group to complete the process on a frame-by-frame basis. In “Catch That Knife,” for instance, Carey decided that he would be bound by handcuffs with an attached digital ball and chain. “So for the three minutes Carey appeared in the sketch, we had to hand track the handcuffs in Flash,” notes Moss. Conversely, the artists used After Effects to place some of the other props in the hands of the various actors.

“We had to do this so the animation and the props would be convincing, as opposed to merely realistic,” notes Moss. “Often this is more difficult. Realistic means tracking exactly to the motion. But with animated props, we tried to capture the level of expression in the live action. In this case, the use and expressiveness of cartoon-like props needed to be tracked back to the realistic motion of the actors, who were really doing slapstick comedy.”

Later, the group used an After Effects plug-in set, Pinnacle Systems’ Composite Wizard (published by Red Giant Software), as well as After Effects’ built-in plug-ins to optimize the colors before delivering the complete rendered version of the skit that aired.

In contrast to the traditional animated look of “Catch That Knife,” FlickerLab’s other segment, “Toaster,” uses photo montages to re-create “Hollywood clichés” within the area of set designs. The improv started with a concept suggested by the audience of a “terrible accident.” In the middle of the sequences, a voice prompt instructs the actors to go for a “Hollywood moment.” Taking an opportunity for the extreme ad-lib, Carey laments to his stage wife, “Sometimes I am mentally ill,” and then wonders where his breakfast is-hence, the focus turns to a broken toaster and accidents that can happen in the kitchen. At this point in the routine, the actors break into a dramatic silver screen scene in a kitchen setting of yesteryear.

Visually, FlickerLab settled on the concept for quick-change settings, all with a different take on a kitchen. “Moss pounced on the Hollywood moment and Broadway moment, and took the story out of the realm of what most people would imagine,” says Diamond. The team achieved this by accentuating extreme movie moments and creating a contrasting visual genre for each one. “The Green Screen Show is about augmenting the humor with details that make it funnier,” he adds. “Moss’s Dickensian world was very theatrical, and it sold the idea.”

The diverse backdrops include a surreal display of cooking areas based on dramatic scenes in Hollywood movies. For example, Moss evoked a filmic reference from Days of Wine and Roses for an everyday black-and-white household kitchen; another set is fraught with the melodrama from Splendor in the Grass; a mental ward reflects the vibe of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; and the Gothic castle drums up visions of old Vincent Price films such as The Pit and The Pendulum. “We tried to make it feel as if you were watching one of these old films, and just visually amplified what the actors were doing,” explains Moss.
For the “Toaster” skit, FlickerLab created a range of digital backdrops by stitching together numerous photographs within After Effects.

The team achieved that look using what Moss describes as a photographic illustrated style, achieved by stitching together 30 or so photographs in Photoshop and compositing them in After Effects to create each of the seven diverse, artificial locations that exist only virtually. Then, the artists used painting, light, and color to nail down a specific yet edgy “psycho-killer” mood in reference to Carey’s “mental illness” comment.

Most of the props also originated from photos-including drinking mugs, bandages, and the Grim Reaper’s scythe-while others were crafted in After Effects.
Artists constructed the kitchen settings in ¿Toaster,¿ including this one, to resemble those found in memorable Hollywood films.

The Green Screen Show, in fact, is the first comedy show that has incorporated animation with improvisation, resulting in a unique collaborative process between comedians and artists. “The concept and format of the Green Screen Show is so open and allows for many different styles of animation and levels of creativity,” says Moss. “And we get to do something unique every time, which challenges the animators and the directors to keep the ideas fresh.”

Currently, the completed sketches are airing in half-hour shows during Thursday evenings on the WB Network. Meanwhile, Moss is already looking ahead to the challenges of a second season, mulling around various styles-possibly 3D animation with composited video. Either way, he knows that the work will have to generate far more than a laugh a minute.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.