Whether or not you are a Muppets fan, the most recent addition to their ranks, Sid the Science Kid, is worthy of animators’ consideration. Sid and his friends are completely digital animated characters.Digital Media World Magazine May issue - out now

Noting that traditional puppetry and modern motion capture technology can normally require over a month to create one episode of a program in 3D animation with computers, The Jim Henson Company developed a new technique enabling them to create an episode in real-time, requiring only about as much time as shooting a live action sit-com.

Digital Puppetry
Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson, says that it is an efficient and relatively cheaper method of producing a 40-episode run for the show. He says the technique, called ‘digital puppetry’, results in a show that looks like 3D animation but has the looseness of a performed medium.
The process begins on a sound stage where the Muppets actors perform their characters’ body movements in motion capture suits. At the same time, puppeteers voice their dialogue while using hand controls to move their characters’ faces, and sync on a screen. Then computers stitch facial and body movements together.
Puppeteer Drew Massey explains that they take an ideal performance with the puppeteers’ performance – or ‘real-time animation’ – and weld this performance onto the body of the person in the motion capture suit on set. All the action is captured by a virtual camera that shifts views in the same way you would look around inside a video game. The footage is then ready for post–production editing and cleanup before going to air.

Motion Capture and Animation
This example of full body puppeteering applied to CG rendered content runs against the more common use of motion capture for realistic visual effects work, and the idea that it wasn’t as effective for animation. But perhaps because the Jim Henson team have many years of experience performing in body suits and are very talented artists, the result is convincing. By merging the puppeteers' skills and talents with CG rendering, the Sid character gains weight and warmth.
It will be interesting to see how the technique develops to balance very realistic movements with fully animated characters, and if other studios adopt it in their own style. Sid started airing in September 2008 to introduce basic science concepts to pre-school children, helping to make them more receptive to a scientific approach to learning about the world.

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