Issue: Volume 35 Issue 2: (Feb/Mar 2012)

Seed Money

By: Karen Moltenbrey
Seeds. They’ve been around since the dawn of time. So what makes Growums—garden kits with veggie/herb seeds, soil pellets, and plant tags—so special? Parents will say Growums are a fantastic way to interest children in growing (and eating) fresh, healthy food. From the children’s point of view, it’s the animated characters and virtual fun that accompany the down-to-earth gardening activity that make the kits so appealing. Either way, it adds up to a winning recipe.

In the real world, there are currently six specific garden kits to choose from: Pizza, Herb, Salad, Ratatouille, Taco, and Stir-Fry, each containing four types of seed packets related to a particular garden. For instance, the Pizza Garden comprises tomato, oregano, basil, and bell pepper packs. Kids learn firsthand how to grow their own nutritious and delicious food, and perhaps it will get them rooted in a healthier lifestyle.

In the virtual world is where the unique experience unfolds, however. It’s here where fun-loving 3D characters representing each type of plant reside. Take, for instance, those in the Pizza Garden. You will not find simply a tomato-shaped cartoon character called Tomato, but instead will be introduced to the dynamic (and cleverly named) Tomicio, along with his garden mates Regan O, Baby Basil, and Belle Peppa. Each character brings a unique flavor to its particular CG foursome through animation and dialog on the Growums Web site (www.growums.com).
 
Also in the virtual world, kids can track their particular garden’s growth by entering a special code from their kits. It’s also here where the animated characters spring to life in videos that educate the youngsters (and parents) on how to care for the plants, while tracking each stage of the garden’s progress. Every 10 days, youngsters receive a new set of cartoon-driven vignettes with garden growing tips.

With this dynamic integration of the real and virtual worlds, Growums has experienced phenomenal growth itself during the short time since its germination. The kits can be found in local garden stores and departments, including Lowe’s, as well as online. Also, Growums was recognized on the television show The View, and recently was accepted into the Gates Foundation based on Growums’ fund-raising offers for schools and other organizations.


Growums is more than just fun and games. The intent is to use the CG characters to teach folks,
particularly children, about caring for their real-world crops and learning healthy eating habits.


Growing the Concept

The idea for Growums sprouted with founder Michael Ferraro, who was developing programs for the garden industry. His viewpoint was that the focus should be on teaching people to develop a green thumb—in particular children, most of whom today have no gardening knowledge or exposure. “I also realized that children today don’t eat enough healthy vegetables; in fact, they are on a crash course to becoming obese.” With that in mind, Ferraro found a way to integrate his original garden-focused business venture with the goal of promoting a healthier lifestyle.

With help from an artist friend, Ferraro produced an initial batch of vegetable, herb, and fruit characters that would become the early Growums. He tried to grow the idea with a seed company, but the poor economic climate was not conducive for such a venture. The bright spot, however, came when the person introduced Ferraro to 3D artist/animator Joel Payne, with the belief that Payne’s substantial experience in the cartoon, animation, and gaming industries could help cultivate this concept into a cash crop.   

At the time, Payne—who has worked on feature films, VR rides, TV cartoons, and more—was looking at developing a small, online game, but realized that, being an unknown company (Digital Backlot) with an unknown game to pitch, the odds were not in his favor in getting the necessary funding for his own venture. “I wanted to do art that was on par with the Triple-A games I’ve worked on in the past. I didn’t want to have banner ads taking over the experience, and that’s when it hit me. What if the banner ad was the game itself? I knew that it had to be a product that everyone would embrace, and the game portion would have to be fun and informative, not in bad taste,” says Payne. He found what he was looking for with Growums.

Ferraro’s early characters consisted of 2D vector graphics, and Payne—wanting the online characters to stand out—persuaded Ferraro to bring them into the 3D world. “I told him we should build the cast as if this was already a 3D blockbuster feature film,” says Payne, who then redesigned the cast of fruits, veggies, and herbs. “No doubt 3D adds a level of believability that cannot be achieved in 2D. You want to believe that these characters are living out in your garden, hiding behind the leaves like leprechauns and fairies.”

The characters’ world was designed as an educational and fun destination for children. They will play games but also learn how to plant, harvest, and prepare food—as well as learn how to divide land and manage money. “From the First Lady to Farmville, it is obvious that people like the subject matter,” reasons Payne. “This is not just an endgame that educates and entertains; it is a solution to a huge problem [childhood obesity].”

Planting a CG Garden

While the online information was compiled by a team of horticulturists and learned professionals from the agricultural field who made the data smart and accurate, it was up to Payne to put a fun, silly spin on it. “You want the world to be cute and fun, but you don’t want to talk down to kids,” says Payne.
As of this writing, the Growums site was populated with approximately 60 characters. In addition to the vegetables and herbs, there are garden tools, machines, and windmills that reside in the world—all with their own distinct personality. The characters as well as the backgrounds were built in Autodesk’s Maya 2010.

“My company has a simple yet powerful design philosophy, and that is everything we design has to be entertaining apart from itself,” explains Payne. “The name has to be entertaining before you ever see the character, and the character has to be entertaining before hearing them speak, and the dialog has to be clever before you ever hear the voice and see the character.”

Each character starts out as a concept—a name and type of vegetable. From there, character designer Gavin Dell draws a black-and-white pencil sketch in a pose that expresses the character’s personality. Once the team is happy with the look, Payne models it in 3D, creating the color palette and detail. Next, he renders out the body in parts and layers, so he can puppeteer the characters in SwishZone’s Swish Max Flash, using vector-based facial features. He even gives voice to the characters (literally and digitally) with Sony Sound Forge, recording the voice-overs and mixing in the musical sound track with the cartoons.

Scene lighting, devised using Maya 2010, is kept bright and colorful. Adobe’s Photoshop Creative Suite is used to generate simple, soft brush-stroke textures for most of the main surfaces. In fact, the artist uses solid-color shaders in the scene, keeping the look simple with just a diffuse layer. “We didn’t even do specular or normal maps; we kept the look very cartoon-like,” Payne says.

The creation process takes approximately two weeks to complete one “classroom,” which teaches four lessons for a particular garden’s growth stage. A content delivery system, built in-house, serves up the content, which is timed to the growth rate for each individual garden.

“It’s all about keeping the process as simple as possible, and that is the secret to its success,” says Payne. “There’s no red tape.”

While spades and hoes are common garden tools in the real world, for the cyber garden, the team uses Maya, Photoshop CS3, Swish Max 3.0 animation tool, and Ryan Clark’s CrazyBump, in addition to Flash and Sound Forge, to sow and grow their imagery.

Afterward, the artists determine where the character will live in this cyber world, “and that starts the creative process again,” notes Payne. “What’s the name of the building or background? What vegetable or herb can it be built from? Nothing is just for function alone; it has to be entertaining.”

Southern California-based Digital Backlot handles all the visuals, game design, and audio for the project, while Florida-based Growums, managed by Mauricio Abela, handles the art for the product line, the marketing design, and the product’s Web site. Meanwhile, Marco Bucci, located in Canada, heads up the environment concept designs for the upcoming MMO game, which are then handed off to Payne for 3D modeling and coloring. Swish Max is used to animate the characters for the online virtual classroom.

Developing the Characters

While each character challenged the artists in some way or another, those that caused the most growing pains were the herbs, “hands down,” says Payne. “We tried using pots with faces and the herb in question as hair. But they were just too simplistic-looking compared to the other Growums characters we designed earlier. It didn’t fit into my vision because the thing that elevates the characters is the clothes, and the pots didn’t have bodies.”

Payne explains that he wanted Growums to be almost human—in the way that Bugs Bunny is to a real rabbit. Sometimes, though, he had to scale back on the design because they were too human-like. “They are vegetables and herbs first,” Payne adds.

In the end, the herbs were redesigned, with the exception of Baby Basil, which remains potted. “That made sense, being the tiniest character,” Payne adds. “Now we have Elvis Parsley, Frank Cilantro, and Regan O. Those are my favorites.”

When asked if there is any particular veggie that the group is avoiding, Payne jokingly says, “brussels sprout.” While he may avoid eating them personally, the artist says that all vegetables will be considered for Growums.

Payne, naturally, sees his characters as one of a kind. “I wanted them to be more than nondescript vegetables with googly eyes. I wanted them to be almost human, mascots for the vegetable they are supposed to represent, so the plant itself has more texture reality to it,” he says. Moreover, the characters have occupations and personas. And, the clothing they wear says a lot about who they are.

“The biggest [differentiator] is the animation technique we’re employing,” notes Payne. “The bodies are rendered in 3D but all the facial expressions are vector-based, giving us a hybrid technique we think is original. It gives us the power of 3D with an affordable facial library that loads quickly, making them much more than traditional vector-based characters.”

Perhaps Ferraro and the Growums gang are on to something. “We started seeing an overwhelming reaction to [the characters], and that got us excited,” says Payne. “But cute characters aren’t enough. It’s the combination of tying the online world to the real world that gets people on board. And it’s a clever new way to get kids eating vegetables.”

Taking Root

In addition to the MMO, there are Growums partnerships and products that will be released soon. “Growums is going to go prime time, as they say,” Payne says with a deliberate hint. By creating characters that could scale and be “their own” from the onset, he believes they will be a perfect ingredient to any project.

“We don’t want to stop at the gardens; we feel we have the opportunity to expand into other lines and possibly videos or cartoon-type of programs for kids to watch on Saturday mornings,” Payne says.  Meanwhile, the product and online classroom has been basking in attention lately, and the Web site traffic growing daily.

“Aside from getting kids excited about growing healthy food, [this integrated offering] is showing how 3D elevates an otherwise basic concept, like gardening, into a fun, interactive ‘live’ world,” says Payne.

What delicious food for thought.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.
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