Cartoon Jockey
Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 8 (August 2000)

Cartoon Jockey

Cartoon Network's animated host Johnny Bravo interacts with live callers in real time

First there was the DJ, and then music videos spawned the "VJ." Now the newest jockey on the block is Cartoon Network's "CJ," or cartoon jockey. Cool as he is, it's doubtful that CJ Johnny Bravo will pose a threat to the livelihood of the MTV veejays-mainly because unlike them, he's an animated character.

In April, Cartoon Network installed the 2D Johnny Bravo character as the host of its new interactive viewer-request show, JBVO, which airs Sunday evenings. Using a beta version of Kaydara's (Montreal) FilmBox On-Air product, Bravo fulfills telephone requests from actual viewers for nostalgic cartoons such as "Bugs Bunny" and "Scooby-Doo!" pulled from Cartoon Network's vast library. Before playing the cartoons, though, Bravo interacts with the caller in real time, performing many of his signature moves, such as flipping his yo-yo back and forth or whipping out a mirror so he can primp.

While real-time animation is hardly new, what distinguishes this application from others like it is that Johnny Bravo's a flat two-dimensional character, not a 3D character made to look 2D. Nonetheless, FilmBox On-Air, the key technology behind the 2D persona of Johnny Bravo, is expected to have a significant effect on the real-time broadcast world in general, for both 2D or 3D applications. "With FilmBox On-Air, producers can trigger either 3D animation sequences or 2D animated clips with no lag time," says Dan Kraus, Kaydara's director of products. "This completely removes the need to prerender things. As a result, directors can be more creative, making choices on the fly during the broadcast."

It was Cartoon Network's desire to create JBVO that became the driving force behind what is FilmBox On-Air, which is expected to ship early this winter. Prompted by the creative vision of the network and Funny Garbage, the New York digital facility charged with bringing Bravo to animated life, Kaydara stepped up work on the on-air solution well over a year ago to meet Funny Garbage's needs. "The biggest challenge was in creating the technology to make this happen since no one had ever done anything like this before," says Denise Rottina, executive producer at Funny Garbage.

By broadening the boundaries of its FilmBox "studio" solution for real-time animation through motion capture, Kaydara is bringing more flexibility and options to real-time animation for the broadcast community. "We designed the product with a simple interface for on-air animation control and triggering," says Kraus. "Since broadcasters don't want to deal with the details of 3D, just the results, the interface is designed to focus on performance, making it versatile enough to be used live during a broadcast."

Johnny Bravo's trademark is his snappy, dynamic, quirky movement, which immediately ruled out using 3D motion-capture technology with its signature fluid motion. This was just as well, since Cartoon Network wanted to maintain the traditional look of Johnny Bravo, a property that has aired since 1997 and is a good fit with the classic cartoons featured on the show. "The FilmBox system's ability to access real-time sequences was essential to our production of the show," says Rottina. "To get the exact movement required for the Johnny Bravo character, video sequences were the only method."

Creating the spot's range of canned action sequences for the traditionally animated character, such as Johnny combing his hair, required artists to hand-draw hundreds of cels for each clip, which were digitally scanned and ported into the FilmBox On-Air system using an SGI (Mountain View, CA) 540 workstation.

Based on Johnny's conversation with the live caller, the clips are sequenced together as needed and triggered in appropriate order by an operator-similar to a puppeteer "who's pushing buttons rather than pulling strings," remarks Rottina. What makes this application successful, Kraus points out, is the seamless integration-there's no pause between when the operator hits the key to trigger the movement and the motion itself, so it appears as though the character is responding and interacting with callers.

To achieve the appropriate lip movement for the character as it converses with the caller, Funny Garbage first created a full range of mouth formations to cover basic speech sounds. These images are then triggered to play in the correct order with Film Box On-Air's Voice Reality real-time lip sync technology, which recognizes the sounds spoken by an onset actor providing the voice of Johnny Bravo.

The resultant effect, says Rottina, is an animated Johnny Bravo playing the role of a true, live video jockey. "There are few television shows that feature interaction between the host and the viewer," she says. "There's Larry King Live, but he's not an animated character"-at least not in the traditional sense.

FilmBox On-Air, Kaydara (