- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

Children love the weekday adventures on PBS of "Jay Jay the Jet Plane" and his pals, who take animated journeys of discovery that begin at an airport and extend to the farthest reaches of the moon.
David Michel and his wife, Deborah, began developing "Jay Jay the Jet Plane" in the early 1990s out of stories that David, who traveled extensively in his business, would tell his then-2-year-old son John about his trips. The airplanes in the stories began to take on personalities that often mimicked his son's preschool peer group.
The journey from the home office drawing board to PBS hit began when the Michels poured their life savings into Wonderwing.com Entertainment. They produced and sold three episodes of "Jay Jay the Jet Plane" and won 12 national awards for excellence in children's programming along the way.
"The first videos produced were produced with hand-carved wooden models on miniature sets, and we pulled the planes around on three thousands of an inch tungsten wire," Mr. Michel says.
The magic behind the current PBS show can be found in Venice, Calif., at the studios of Modern Cartoon where the little planes are given 3-D life through technology or, as their creator says, "Where technology makes something very complicated very simple and approachable for the child."
The first things an adult viewer will notice are the crisp animation that creates a well-defined world to interact with a human element. The characters at Tarrytown airport, such as Snuffy the skywriter and Tuffy the tiny tow truck have faces capable of a wide variety of "real-time" emotional and physical responses from blinking eyes to wiggles and wags of wings and tails as they talk to one another or the human member of the team Brenda Blue (Eve Whittle).
The jaunt to television began when the Michels, who were working with Bruce Johnson of PorchLight Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based company, began a relationship with Modern Cartoons. The company uses facial performance animation techniques that capture an actor's facial movements and animate in real time.
"Imagine the voice actor outfitted with a face tracker, which is like a halo with micro computers looking back at the actor's face, translating the motion back to the computer," Mr. Michel says. "This allows the animator to capture the actual motion smiles, nose movements, eye blinks of the actor, animating them onto the on-screen character in real time.
"This is amazing because as the voice actor performs, they are watching the character on screen looking back at them, mimicking their every head movement, facial expression and vocal response."
A second person assigned to the character, the puppeteer, uses a miniaturized version of the plane whose exact movements are tracked using MotionStar technology. This is done using a small transmitter that emits a short-range magnetic field, similar to Earth's magnetic field. The sensors are then placed on the 3-D model, which is then moved through the space. The movements are captured onto the computer.
"The military began developing motion tracking about 30 years ago as they wanted to be able to mount a sensor on a pilot's helmet that could be used to aim a weapon," says Jack Scully, vice president of new business development for the Boston-based Ascension, which developed MotionStar.
"MotionStar is the result of our developing a method for tracking objects in free space that could be used for computer graphics applications and that is being used very successfully in cartoon animation."
With facial expression and physical movements being tracked, captured and mapped onto the character, the final creators who bring Jay Jay and his friends to real-time life could easily get mistaken for video-game enthusiasts.
"They are in the corner with joysticks with all these buttons and levers programmed into the joystick providing further animation to the characters," Mr. Michel says. "This allows them to give movement to the planes like starting and stopping the props, flapping the wings, wagging the tails and so forth."
Once these additional elements are animated, the 3-D sets that make up Tarrytown Airport and the world Jay Jay lives in are digitally filmed and translated into the computer. The final element is adding the live actor, who works against a green screen, not unlike the weatherman on the evening news.
In addition to providing a new live-action visual look to the show, using performance animation also greatly reduces the time it takes to produce the show. Performance animation mimics live-action filming, which means if a take is not perfect, it can be redone with minimal difficulty. In traditional animation, it can take up to 20 weeks, sometimes more, to develop one episode.
The other advantage is that the cartoon studio, with a staff of about 50 people can deliver one show per week to the broadcaster vs. the 200 to 300 workers required to do one shoe in traditional cell animation.
"Live performance animation will not replace traditional animation," says Chris Walker, president and CEO of Modern Cartoons. "That said, using live performance techniques, we are able to work on three to four shows simultaneously, so the process is much faster. In addition, the director has significantly more control over the finished show, however, it is just another tool that can be used to create great three-dimensional characters."
The big benefit for the "Jay Jay the Jet Plane" fan is a visually stunning show with a cast of positive characters that somehow looks very real to its viewing audience. While parents may wax nostalgic for traditional animation, 3-D techniques make worlds on television and film that much more alive.
Write to Joseph Szadkowsi, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected]washingtontimes.com).

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