Chat with Barbie
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2017)

Chat with Barbie

What’s the secret behind Barbie’s half-century of success? That would be Mattel’s ability to keep her “modern.” For its latest move, Mattel gave its star her very own vlog; it was just up to House of Moves and CounterPunch Studios to bring her emotive webcam performance to life.

Very few toy brands have enjoyed the same enduring impact as Barbie. 2017, in fact, marks the 58th year of her non-stop success.

The secret behind Barbie’s success is Mattel’s ability to deftly shift with the times, keeping Barbie relevant in a constantly shifting market. And how do you do that today? Give Barbie her very own vlog.

With YouTube now effectively the television of a new generation –'turning many users into stars, simply giving them an outlet to share their interests, activities, and personalities – Mattel wanted to create a series of short CG vlogs starring Barbie as a vibrant, fun-loving teen girl.

The only problem? Webcam vlogs are all about the face; the emotive, engaging, and interesting window onto the personality that, in the world of YouTube, draws millions of viewers to online celebrities.

With that in mind, Barbie needed to be more than a plastic facade – she needed to express all the range of emotion of a real YouTube star. To achieve that within the constraints of a short, weekly, episodic turnaround, production companies House of Moves and CounterPunch Studios were called in to help.

Starting a Blog

“Mattel reached out to several service vendors with a challenge – provide a full-content deliverable from a pipeline capable of turning out multiple minutes of premiere animation in less than a week,” says Andrew Egiziano, owner of CounterPunch.

“When we found out that House of Moves had also been approached, it just made sense to discuss collaboration. We knew about House of Moves and its groundbreaking Helibug rendering technology, and we had the facial rigging and animation technology to complement it. It was a natural partnership.”

Brian Rausch, CEO of House of Moves, agrees that the partnership was beneficial. “The Barbie project was such an aggressive project, with big demands and a short timeline, that having additional experienced production muscle available was simply a great opportunity,” he says.

And that extra manpower would be necessary, considering Barbie required true-to-life facial animation that would make her feel as relatable and likeable as any other vlogger, and all within an extremely tight one-week turnaround per episode.

“Our aim was to make Barbie the cute and lovable character that Mattel has always focused on creating,” explains Egiziano. “We needed to bring in the characteristics the audience knows and loves from Barbie, while adding in the performance and personality of the actor we captured with mocap. We needed to make Barbie’s personality truly connect with the audience.”

Face-to-Face with Barbie

The animation in Barbie is incredibly subtle – she gives a slight hint of a smile when discussing something she find humorous, her eyes widen when she’s excited, she glances upward when she’s thinking – and all of this occurring directly into the camera, just as you would expect from any normal vlog. There was no hiding here. This facial animation had to be the best of the best, and all delivered to the aforementioned weekly timelines.

In order to bring Barbie to life, House of Moves completed full face and body performance capture of an actor on its soundstage. Once the crew captured the footage for each episode, they exported an EDL and sent it off to CounterPunch.

CounterPunch used Faceware Technologies’ Analyzer to track each landmark of the actor’s face, capturing the essence of her performance, before sending this data to Faceware Retargeter to apply that data onto the CG Barbie model’s face.

“Analyzer does a great job at capturing the essence of a performance. We can really capture the necessary subtleties,” explains Egiziano. “Once the data is converted to use with Retargeter, it creates and constructs an animation based on those poses.”
Egiziano estimates that such capture solutions automate approximately 70 to 80 percent of the animation work, freeing his animators to focus on the last, crucial elements: making Barbie seem as expressive, natural, and enthusiastic as possible for her adoring viewers.

“Like any technology, Faceware gets you closer to the final project, but of course, professional artists and animators are still required to bring the show to its final quality level,” says Rausch. “Nevertheless, the man days spent polishing over the top are still way better than the many man weeks that we’d be working if we didn’t have the animation core that Faceware delivered for the show.”


Egiziano adds: “Such software allowed us to create high-volume quantities of quality animation in very short timelines, and with a project like the Barbie vlog, that’s vital.”

Maintaining a Blog

The results of the Barbie vlog project were well received, as the videos logged millions of views, and Business Insider called the series “genius,” adding that the production “nailed the mannerisms of a first-time YouTuber; Barbie is just the right combination of nerves and excitement.”

It’s no wonder that the creative teams were so pleased with the results they achieved.
“The nuance that I am most pleased with is the overall human quality that Barbie exudes,” says Rausch. “She’s a young, vibrant lady, and you feel that throughout the animation. The results of the face, body, and voice being captured simultaneously make her so engaging and fun to watch.”

Egiziano was similarly proud of the final look and feel that exemplified the fun and joyous personality of Barbie.

“Her voice is such a character on its own that we tried to hone in and capture that essence with expressions and feeling in the animation,” he says. “We were impressed with how expressive Barbie’s eyes and brows are, and how her passion and emotion shines through to the audience – she’s so animated and adventurous that it’s difficult not to enjoy watching her talk about whatever it is she happens to be talking about.”

The Barbie vlog project was a challenge, but one achieved with skill and final results that have proven a hit across the globe.

'“We took on the responsibility of making one of the most recognizable characters in Western culture – if not the world – seem young, beautiful, and relevant,” concludes Rausch, looking back on the project. “This requires top-notch people, top-notch tools, and speed. It was imperative that at the end of our capture day, we had animation core files available for artists ASAP. Thankfully, the tools we used made for an extremely quick process and allowed us to meet our deadlines.” '