This article demonstrates how production and creative agency, The Tomorrow Lab, collaborated with First Person to create an engaging film highlighting the Near Future offerings of CableLabs. First Person, whom handled the post-production for the film, combined Character Creator and iClone for the creation of an AI assistant to interact with real-life actors. Q&A for this article are handled from the Vfx Supervisor of this project, Geoff Hecht.
Q: Hello Geoff, and welcome to the Reallusion Magazine! Please tell us about the “Near Future: Mañana Cabana” project, the objectives of the show, and how long it took for the full production.
A: I’m honored to be here. The Mañana Cabana is part of The Near Future series, showcasing CableLabs’ technology and its offerings. CableLabs pioneers technological solutions for the cable industry. The complete list of Near Future films is available here.
Director David Mackie began crafting these films in 2011 as “A Day Made of Glass.” Initially seeming futuristic, the concepts have become mainstream in the past 12 years. In 2011, I met David Mackie and First Person, which became relevant in 2022 when David Mackie presented The Mañana Cabana project. I instantly wanted to join as Director of Animation at First Person.
The Mañana Cabana introduces the idea of AI assistants with bodies in the near future. Visualizing this in 2022 involved character animation, typically time-consuming. Given a tight 5-week schedule for a 5-minute film, we turned to Reallusion’s Character Creator and iClone tools for a successful approach.
Q: In the Near Future: Manana Cabana film, we have seen two very adorable characters: the little boy and the AI assistant: a rabbit puppet. Can you share with us how was these characters made?
A: Creating content on YouTube with Reallusion software often leans towards photorealism, but our project aimed for stylized, toon-like characters. Reallusion’s Character Creator offers limitless character styles. Our tight schedule for the Mañana Cabana project demanded efficient decisions, so we researched stock libraries to fill our character slots quickly, an unconventional approach. Though the Louie character could have been made in Character Creator, our situation dictated this method.
Normally, a stock character’s compatibility with animation software matters. However, Reallusion’s tools are platform-agnostic.Character Creator’s iAvatar system provided facial and body controls. Our protagonist, Louie, began as a stock model, later adapted with the GoZ function, ensuring proportion alignment between a ZBrush-shrunk iAvatar model and Louie. The iAvatar version was then used in Character Creator for full facial capabilities. The Bunny Rabbit character’s differing vertices count led us to rig it using the AccuRig system, mapping extra facial controls in Character Creator for speech. Antony Evans of Digital Puppets UK handled both characters’ set-up. This mix of approaches optimized our time and workflow for the project.
Q: Speaking of animation, these characters both have lively facial expressions. What motion-captured tools were used, and what is the trick when making these facial animations?
A: iClone has three great tools for the facial animation of characters, and we used them all for the Mañana Cabana project. We began by using iPhone Live Face where we can link our animator’s face to control the facial movement of that character. This created a very natural foundation, but we needed an extremely accurate lip sync animation, so our second step was to use the AccuLips feature inside of iClone. Right out of the box, Acculips does a great job lining up editable keyframes for each mouth shape in the timeline, and most people may even use the default output as-is. We found, however, that if you want to hold a lip pose longer like an “M” or “O” shape, you can stack two of the same shape keys next to each other in the timeline. We felt that this was a more accurate result.
Lastly, the character had to perform to the camera, so with our first two techniques applied, we finished off the animation using the built-in Face Key tool within iClone. This allowed us to specifically point the characters, eyes, eyebrows, face, etc. in whatever direction we felt making it look more like the actor and characters were interacting with each other. There’s a little-known panel called the “Facial Animation Settings” that allowed us to mix the Viseme Strength (AccuLips) and the Expression Strength (Face Key or Live Face).
Q: Another fun part to watch on these characters is their energetic body animation. How was it done, and how did you find it time-saving compared with traditional workflows?
A: Yes! I think this was the most fun part! Character animation in traditional pipelines can take 8-hour work days to create 4 seconds of animation. But animating in iClone isn’t like animating in any other software I’ve seen. I’ve used Maya, Cinema 4D, and Blender for character animation projects, and started using Autodesk Maya in 2002. Animating in iClone is more like if you combined Adobe Premiere with Maya: You can quickly drop animation clips into your timeline, and your character just comes alive.
“ Character animation in traditional pipelines can take 8 hour work days to create 4 seconds of animation. But animating in iClone isn’t like animating in any other software I’ve seen. I’ve used Maya, Cinema 4D, and Blender for character animation projects, and started using Autodesk Maya in 2002. Animating in iClone is more like if you combined Adobe Premiere with Maya: You can quickly drop animation clips into your timeline, and your character just comes alive! “Geoff Hetch | Animation Creative Director / VFX Supervisor
It’s so fast to just try things, and if it doesn’t work out, no big deal, we’ll try something else out 5 minutes later. We don’t have to wait an entire workday to see that something is not working. And I think historically some people have stayed away from motion capture because it wasn’t easily editable. But iClone has the ability to mix and match mocap clips, taking the parts that you like and removing the parts that you don’t as well as adding hand keys. It’s a real hybrid system. We were showing the director Dave Mackie’s animation progress on the same day that we started animation, which is completely unheard of!
I know that there are folks out there who are hesitant to try new things, but I don’t think that most of us joined the industry to set keyframes and adjust tangents in a graph editor (Which you can do in iClone, but don’t have to). It’s great to know those things from a technical level, but those are just an intermediate step to ultimately get where we really want to be… telling impactful stories. iClone just gets you there much faster with more creative freedom than most would anticipate.
“ Historically some people have stayed away from motion capture because it wasn’t easily editable. But iClone has the ability to mix and match mocap clips, taking the parts that you like and removing the parts that you don’t as well as adding hand keys. It’s a real hybrid system. We were showing the director Dave Mackie animation progress on the same day that we started animation, which is completely unheard of!“Geoff Hecht | Animation Creative Director / VFX Supervisor
Q: The entire project is a collaborative result between First Person, Tomorrow Lab, and CableLabs. What is the key to successful communication when working with multiple producing partners?
A: It all comes down to a combination of communication and trust. CableLabs trusts the Tomorrow Lab because they have CableLabs’ best interests in mind. Together they already have done 5 brand films at such an impressive level. Lisa Tesone is a great Producer who has all the right connections and experience to take any project to the next level (http://lisatesone.com). David Mackie is a great director,and if you go to his website (https://dmackie.com) you’ll be impressed by what he’s accomplished on a film Director level. Dave doesn’t want to do something just because it’s the “cool” thing to do, he does it because it tells a better story and helps connect CableLabs with its customers. But it just happens to look cool, because Dave has a great eye.
First Person has been involved in several incredible works for over 20 years. In the San Francisco Bay Area, they are known by everyone in the industry, and looking at their portfolio it’s not hard to see why. (https://www.firstperson.is.)
I met the owners of Drew Fiero, Marcello Grande, and Brandon Grande 12 years ago and have been impressed ever since. Because of conflicting schedules and budgets, we don’t all get to work together all the time, but that doesn’t change how you might feel about a group or a person. David Mackie had a unique problem to solve for the Mañana Cabana project in the character animation. He trusts First Person, and I had recently completed a film (Metro6) that had over 30 characters. We at First Person believed in this Reallusion Character Creator and iClone workflow. We were confident we could do the project to the highest of standards, and it all lined up.
Q: We believe the audience will love to see more of your work in the future. Can you share a little of your upcoming plans?
A: I’m fully freelance for the first time in over 11 years of my career and I’m excited to be forging my own path! It was such a rewarding experience to direct Metro6, but it was so difficult to produce at that scale that I wasn’t sure when I’d work on another film. Turns out that time is “now.” Having had the opportunity to work with Reallusion tools, and some other offerings that are available now, it’s so much easier to produce incredible animation than it ever has been before.
I am taking on commissioned work (and you can find my portfolio at https://geoffhecht.com), but when I’m not booked on commissioned projects, I’ll be working away on my next animated film “Love is a Championship!” This is a project that we’ll look to flex some 💪 Reallusion Muscle 💪 accomplishing things with tools that many might have not thought possible! More details of this project will be available online in the coming months.
About the Author
Geoff Hecht is an experienced 3D / VFX talent from San Francisco, California. He graduated from the Academy of Art University, majoring in Animation and Visual Effects. His solid academic training and seasoned experience made him a multiple award-winning director of animation and creative director. One of the iconic achievements was the winning of the Telly Award (Gold), with his team filming the annual corporate campaign video for Oracle in 2019.
Geoff’s talents with people also made him a good supervisor of business management. He founded and co-owned Hectic Digital, an animation and VFX production company for 7 years and then sold it to the renowned media agency IVC. He directed several talented artists, and many of them ended up working at ILM, Weta, MPC, 2K, and other notable studios. He directed a team of 78 people on an animated short, Metro6, which was accepted to almost 70 global film festivals. Making it into the Top 100 Best Animated Shorts in 2020 by FilmAffinity.
Metro6 was extremely ambitious: A short film on the scale of a feature film with over 30+ characters, and full city environment. In 2019 after Geoff completed Metro6, he ran into some Reallusion demos on YouTube. He couldn’t help but think how Reallusion tools would be applied to his project, and until he saw Martin Klekner using Character Creator and iClone for his project “Heroes of Bronze“, he knew that he wanted to try these tools for himself. The initial tests with Reallusion were impressive! And when the Near Future: Mañana Cabana project came through the door, he knew what they should use. They were ready.