The animation secret behind Jon Stewart’s now dead HBO show
It’s been said that the insane news cycle killed Jon Stewart’s daily animated news show, but the truth is, the hitch was as much about the animation as it was the news.
“We all thought the project had great potential but there were technical issues in terms of production and distribution that proved too difficult given the quick turnaround and topical nature of the material,” said HBO and Stewart in a statement to Mashable.
It’s a shame, really, because the animation technology they were originally going to use was specifically designed to handle the ultra-fast turnaround required for daily-news-infused animation.
I know this because one of the animation companies behind Stewart’s big idea gave me a preview months ago, long before Donald Trump took office and the daily news cycle became By-the-Minute News Cycle.
Excited as everyone was about the prospect of a new Jon Stewart news satire show, Stewart’s familiar face was notably absent from the concept. In his place and that of any other actors appearing on the show were supposed to be a set of rather unusual animated characters.
What I glimpsed late last year was a concept, an idea that the Otoyo, HBO and, apparently, Stewart, liked — at least for a little while.
Animated shows are nothing new, but generating animations for what could be multiple segments in a daily news-based show is something else altogether. Even using traditional 3D animation tools like Maya, the process is time-consuming and intense. There’s the character creation, digital lighting and, most important, rigging. Rigging is akin to a puppeteer attaching strings and sticks to a physical puppet and then using them to move the character in time with voice recording (most animators record the voices before moving on to animation).
All of that would’ve taken too long for Stewart’s HBO show, which never officially had a name.
When HBO announced the cable news parody show last summer, it also said that Stewart was building out an animation studio. Stewart, in turn, would be working with the graphics firm Otoy. What Stewart was building was described as “simple animation,” but beyond that we knew little about how he and HBO would do topical animation on a near daily basis.
Now it appears that the puzzle was never entirely solved. What I glimpsed late last year was a concept, an idea that the Otoyo, HBO and, apparently, Stewart, liked — at least for a little while.
Sources now tell me that the team soon changed technologies.
Still, what I saw was intriguing and might be instructive for those hoping to do near-real time 3D animation shows.
It started with a cat
When John C Martin II and I sat down last fall in the back corner of a Union Square Starbucks, Martin, who serves as VP of Marketing for animation software company Reallusion, was anxious to show me what he hoped would become the magic behind Stewart’s HBO animation project.
Martin and I met two-and-a-half years ago on the floor of New York Comic Con. He had a tiny booth against one wall and was running a piece of software called CrazyTalk Animator that let me use my own voice to animate a photo-realistic cat. I spoke into a microphone and the on-screen gray tabby simultaneously kept pace. The cat’s head and eyes moved smoothly, if a bit awkwardly and out of his mouth came my words, my voice. I posted a Vine (RIP) to commemorate the moment.
That software and technology led to the development of several much more powerful applications, including iClone and Character Creator (which is part of the iClone suite). Like the mobile application I saw at Comic Con, this Windows-based application lets anyone, regardless of animations skills, manipulate and animate semi-realistic-looking 3D characters with relative ease.
Throughout our meeting. Martin never mentioned Jon Stewart by name. “We’re in the super-secret bunker of this show,” Martin told me.
However, he described in detail the show HBO and Stewart (beyond the statement above, HBO never offered detailed comment to me on the show or the technology behind it), were building. It was supposed to be a topical news show, Martin told me, where the team picks up a news story in the afternoon, the writing team creates a script and the animation is produced within 24 hours.
“The backbone of it is really on characters created in and tools from our real-time character generator,” said Martin. And those characters and ideas all “live inside the head of the man at the head of this show,” he added.
Martin opened his 17-inch gaming laptop. On screen is a 3D, animated character called Buck. He was large with exaggerated features. Martin calls him “hyper realistic,” which I take to mean, real-ish, but with a hard-push into parody. Buck might have served as Stewart’s show host.
The software applies what appear to be traditional clay sculpture techniques to build virtually any character out of a handful of base figures (male and female of varying ethnicities and body types) and attributes relating to hair, eye color and accessories like glasses. “It’s a universal mesh that’s highly morphable,” said Martin.
He showed me how he could use the mouse to select any portion of the face or body, grabbing the nose and pulling it out, moving the eyes, expanding the cheekbones. It seemed like everything could move freely, but there were some rules and limits so that the figure still animated in a human way.
One of the reasons this works so well is that these characters are not just Stretch Armstrong figures, plastic sacks full of morphable liquid. “The eyes, teeth, full bones all there … the underlying mechanics are all set,” said Martin.
To demonstrate just how morphable each one of iClone Character Creator’s characters are, Martin showed me an animated version of myself. It was generated out of the same base character as Bart. In other words, Bart and my animated avatar have the same digital DNA.
All this morphing capability combined with a motion-capture-based facial-puppeteering engine could’ve made it possible for the Stewart’s team to, as I did with that cat two years ago, talk and have the characters follow and act out their speech in real-time.
This was not Reallusion’s first brush with TV comedy. In 2014, the company helped light night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel prank his Aunt Chippy, quickly created a fake sonogram video that showed a still-in-the-womb baby clapping, flipping Chippy the bird and even doing jumping jacks.
I spent a little time playing with the software. It’s not quite as simple as Martin described, but I was impressed with its unusual combination of power and ease of use. Having worked with more complicated animation products in the past, I could see how iClone Character Creator could save animators days, if not weeks of production, and at $99 a seat, could also save money.
It looks like just the kind of fast-turn-around 3D animation software HBO and Stewart would have needed to power daily, satiric news animations. Even if this software wasn’t the final solution, HBO and Stewart were still on track as of January, when HBO told me that it was preparing to launch the show within the first half of 2017. They were even planning a New York press conference. Reallusion would not comment on the demise of the project.
In the end, Trump’s surreal Presidency proved even too much for software that makes a business out of quickly creating exaggerated reality.
As for Jon Stewart’s and HBO, they’re still planning projects. No word on if any of them will be animated.