Client: House of Moves and CounterPunch Studios
Need: Rapid production to bring Barbie into the digital age
Author: Chris McMahon
What’s the secret behind Barbie’s half-century of success? That would be Mattel’s ability to shift with the times. For its latest trick, Mattel gave its star her very own vlog; it was just up to House of Moves, their innovative software ‘Helibug’, and CounterPunch Studios – with help from Faceware – to bring her emotive webcam performance to life.
Very few toy brands have enjoyed the same enduring impact as Barbie. 2015, in fact, marked the 56th year of her non-stop success, with Barbie continuing to resonate with her audience around the world.
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 in 2015? 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 – it’s the emotive, engaging, and interesting personalities, partly defined by the face, that draw millions of viewers to these online celebrities. So, Barbie needed to be more than a plastic facade – she needed to express all the range of emotion and sentiment 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, using Faceware technology to bring the task to completion…
Starting A Blog
Mattel looked far and wide to find the right studio – or studios, as the case would be – to complete this challenging task.
One of these studios was animation powerhouse House of Moves, which was approached partly for its advanced Helibug pipeline. Another was full-service production outfit CounterPunch Studios.
“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 and well aware of the demanding nature of the task. “When we found out that HoM had also been approached, it just made sense to discuss collaboration. We knew about HoM and their groundbreaking Helibug rendering technology, and we had the facial rigging and animation technology to complement it. It was an natural partnership!”
Brian Rausch, CEO of HoM, is quick to agree that the partnership would be 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. Our goal was to make CG relevant and topical. This required a blazing fast pipeline and some production-hardened people.”
And that extra manpower would be necessary. With Barbie requiring true-to-life facial animation that would make her feel as relate-able and likable as any other vlogger.
“Our aim was to make Barbie the cute and lovable character that Mattel has always focused on creating,” explains Egiziano. “It was our challenge to bring in the characteristics the audience knows and loves from Barbie, while adding in the performance and personality of the actress we captured mo-cap with. We needed to truly bring Barbie into the digital age, and make her personality connect with the audience.”
Nevertheless, despite the benefits of the two teams working together, the one-week timeline per episode presented a real challenge. Mattel wanted a studio that could provide complete vlogs, and always in less than a week. That’s a tough task for any team, not to mention one working under the scrutiny of millions of young fans’ eyes on their work.
And that’s where Faceware’s solutions came in…
Face-to-Face With Barbie
“We pride ourselves on being the ‘Swiss army knife’ of mo-cap, and Faceware is certainly an important offering in the industry,” begins Rausch, considering the solution’s impact on the project.
Both HoM and CounterPunch had been using Faceware for years – particularly the latter, who has a deep and ingrained relationship with the tools: “The CounterPunch team has been using the tools alongside the developers for years,” explains Egiziano.
“We have had the privilege of supporting the testing of the software and watching its potential grow. The software that Faceware produces allows our company to achieve higher quality animation at unprecedented turnarounds. This allows us to create high volume quantities of quality animation in very short timelines – and with Barbie, that was vital.”
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 upwards 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.
Thankfully, Egiziano estimates that Faceware’s capture solutions automate approximately 70-80% 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.
“Faceware supported us in cutting time in manually hand-keying pose after pose,” he explains. “The software did the heavily lifting with our artists’ direction. This gave our artists more time to focus on the details and fine-tune the areas that take the animation to the next level.”
In order to bring the Barbie project to life, House of Moves used the Faceware camera for full face and body performance capture on their sound stage. Once they captured the footage for each episode, they would export an EDL and send it off to CounterPunch to work their magic using Faceware’s software tools.
It would then be up to Analyzer to track each landmark of the actresses face, capturing the essence of her performance, before sending to Retargeter to apply that data onto the CG Barbie model’s face – and all in a fraction of the time it would take using the traditional animation approach.
“The advantage in using these tools is really just speed and creativity,” explains Egiziano. “Analyzer does a great job at capturing the essence of a performance – the process allows us to quickly choose extreme facial shapes in order to train the software in capturing the most out of the performance. We can really capture the necessary subtleties of the performance.”
“Once the data is converted to use with Retargeter, it creates and constructs an animation based of those poses – this saves time and allows the artist to focus on the creativity and personality of the character,” he continues. “Our artists can take the software and focus on bringing the life out of the performance.”
With these processes cut that 70% off the time an artist would otherwise spend animating a minute’s worth of footage, the Barbie vlog project was made possible. That’s a huge advantage for any studio, giving CounterPunch the opportunity to really polish the end product for each vlog while hitting every scheduled delivery.
“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 with without the animation core that Faceware delivers for the show.”
Maintaining a Blog
The results of the Barbie vlog project have been very warmly received: the videos have 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 are so pleased with the results they have 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 is similarly proud of the final look and feel that exemplifies 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 really 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, then, 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, Faceware made for an extremely quick process, and allowed us to meet our deadlines.”