- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

NEW YORK A daily smackeral of sweetness and charm: That, in Pooh-speak, sums up "The Book of Pooh."

A brand-new showcase for the storied cuddle toy, this live-action series is as lovable as its hero, as lush and inviting as the Hundred Acre Wood.

Each half-hour (on the Disney Channel every day at 7:30 a.m. and 10 a.m., with an additional 12:30 p.m. airing Mondays through Fridays) tells two tales about the honey-loving bear and his friends.

Maybe Pooh receives a note inviting him to lunch, signed just "Me." Maybe errand-crazy Rabbit thinks he lost a workday after Pooh, meaning to help, crosses out an extra square on Rabbit's calendar. Maybe Eeyore arrives at a party only to mutter mulishly, "Hope we don't play 'Pin the Tail on the Donkey.' "

Absent from Pooh Corner is a certain mother and child Kanga and Roo but you'll find Piglet, Owl, that mopish donkey Eeyore, the frolicsome Tigger, and brand-new character Kessie, a free-spirited bluebird.

Meanwhile, behind "Pooh's" storybook-come-to-life luster is high-tech handiwork that would wow even Eeyore.

This marriage of 18th-century puppetry and 21st-century cyberspace will stir wonder beyond its target audience of youngsters. Adults who sneak a peek at the screen should be no less spellbound: What is hold-in-your-hand real? What resides only in a computer? Just try to tell.

The magic is conjured at a squat, windowless building in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. On this far-from-pastoral sound stage, the only green in sight is blanketing a wall and a portion of the studio floor. Facing this green swath, a camera floats on a zero-gravity crane.

"It's like a giant animation stage," creator-executive producer Mitchell Kriegman says. "The show is one long special effect."

Before him stands a gaggle of puppeteers in green body suits it takes as many as four to operate one puppet who carry out their artistry with rods affixed to different parts of each figure.

In this video version of the Japanese puppet technique called bunraku, the green-garbed puppeteers and their matching background are zapped from the picture, replaced by a computer-generated Hundred Acre Wood.

Here is where the innovation comes in. Mr. Kriegman calls it "real-time virtual compositing." This means the studio camera is rigged with orienting sensors linked to Pooh's virtual world. Whichever way the camera moves in, out, up, around the computer's virtual setting moves correspondingly.

Explains Mr. Kriegman, "We're able to place the puppets in a virtual environment and let the puppeteers perform in it in real time, while we use the camera in a completely intuitive way as if it's in the virtual environment, too."

Which may not entirely make sense, but, considering the finished product, is nothing to pooh-pooh.

One other cool thing: To give themselves maximum flexibility, the producers mix-and-match real and virtual props. That is, for every physical object stored over in the corner of the studio (a tree stump, a bed, Pooh's "hunny" pots), there's an identical counterpart stored somewhere on a hard drive. There are even puppet honeybees and computer-byte bees.

Real? Virtual? Just try to tell the difference.

"We've needed a technical breakthrough practically every two weeks to do this show," Mr. Kriegman says. But the point of all this pixel razzmatazz isn't to impress computer geeks. "I wanted to find a way to make Pooh more Pooh."

Although Winnie the Pooh has contentedly inhabited the A.A. Milne-authored books for 75 years, as well as the Disney animated cartoons, Mr. Kriegman wasn't satisfied. He wanted what everyone who loves Pooh dreams about: to breathe life into the little stuffed toy.

Mr. Kriegman faced the challenge with solid credentials. He created the groundbreaking Nickelodeon series "Clarissa Explains It All" and helped develop "Rugrats," "Ren and Stimpy," "Rocko's Modern Life" and "Doug."

His other ursine act, "Bear in the Big Blue House," premiered four years ago on Disney Channel, where it remains part of the "Playhouse Disney" block that "The Book of Pooh" has now joined.

As for Kanga and Roo, they'll be with Pooh next season, by which time their particular challenges will be met. "We're building Roo so he can be both in and out of Kanga's pouch," Mr. Kriegman explains, "which is not easy with three people operating him."

One more innovation in the service of Pooh.

"It's been an amazing discovery process," Mr. Kriegman says. "And we've just begun."

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