For as long as I can remember, I was always fascinated with the idea of working in television, telling stories, and being a presenter. I can remember being about seven years old at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Minehead, UK where I spent the day pretending to be surrounded by tv cameras, introducing and presenting “Blue Peter”, speaking out loud as though I was actually on tv, reporting on how cold it was swimming in the outdoor lido pool.
By the time I was 13, I was borrowing my dad’s Super 8mm film camera, saving up to buy cartridges of 3 minutes of Ektachrome, so I could film my latest stop motion dinosaur film, science fiction epic or devising live action special effects like the shows I saw and loved as a child, spaceships and laser beams!
The late, great, Gerry Anderson knew what made a great story and how to deliver it in terms of script, character, music, camera, drama and speech. The problem was he wanted to make live action tv for adults, instead he was offered the opportunity to work on a kids tv show, with puppets. It soon became obvious that the main issue was puppets didn’t have moving mouths or expressive eyes. How could he develop a serious, dramatic tv show with no way for the puppets to express themselves?
So, he did what he always did better than his contemporaries, he innovated and invented ‘Supermarionation’ – eye movement and speaking mouths, synchronised mechanically, to voice tracks, in real-time. The rest, as they say, is history.
Gerry went on to give us some of the most iconic kids tv shows ever, dealing with adult themes, threat, heroism and featuring futuristic technology, beyond our wildest dreams. Such classics as “Thunderbirds”, “Stingray”, “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”, “Joe 90”, “Fireball XL5” and many, many more action packed tv series and cinema films. Episodes which thrilled us as children, dealing in emotion, drama, disaster, anticipation, tension, action.
These shows inspired me and influenced me on my life’s journey and brought me to where I am today.
As computers became available to home users, I got pulled away from tv, into the world of all things digital. Now we could make our own games and stories, albeit with simple graphics. It took around 20 years before real-time 3D animation became accessible and moved from the cinema screen to the home computer screen. Now we have Unity and Unreal, both of which have ensured the democratisation of games development, the creation of short films and in some cases, even episodic series.
The technology we can use for telling stories today, is now more powerful and accessible than in any period previously. I’ve designed and developed many games for children’s tv series like “Roary the Racing Car!”, “Little Charley Bear”, “Poppy Cat”, “Cloudbabies” to name a few. I’ve also developed episodic YouTube series for the BBC, like the Dr. Who Timelord Victorious “Daleks!” series. Each time the technology gives the developers, producers, artists and directors more and more capability.
I had already developed an early version of “Now We’re Talking!” referred to as “The Captain’s Mouth” whenever I demonstrated it. We went on to develop a version of it to create the Dalek’s synchronised flashing ‘lights’ which indicate when a Dalek is speaking, for the BBC series.
My ongoing desire to tell stories and the opportunities to use technology to help is what and my memory of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation inspired me to begin to develop “Now We’re Talking!”. I had been wanting to use low polygon animated characters for a number of projects, using the themed packs from Synty Studios.
These Polygon packs generally come with a number of different characters. I soon realised that these characters were like the original Gerry Anderson puppets. They had no easy way to express themselves, their eyes were static and they had no mouths at all. Yet these low polygon packs, characters were incredibly popular, they look great and come in many themes.
As I began to develop my own YouTube episodic science fiction series called “Star Cruiser 1”, using the space themed packs from Synty Studios, I knew I needed a solution to allow my characters to speak. I am not a 3D artist, so having access to the Synty Studios packs seemed like the best way to create the short pilot.
I decided to invest time in developing my own mouth system, an automatically animated mouth driven by voice clips. I wanted lots of dramatic dialogue. I needed a way to not only generate the mouths on any character, but animate them in sync with the voice clips which would drive them. I needed to come up with the modern, digital equivalent of “Supermarionation”, and that’s what inspired “Now We’re Talking!”
As “Now We’re Talking!” developed, it became apparent that there were a whole host of features based around the mouth, speaking in sync, lips, eye blink, expression, plus variations for any inanimate object which may also need to speak, like a can of beans, a mountain side, or even a cow that sings! We needed the system to be able to cope with all these and more.
The single most important aspect for me was the animation of the mouth. It was never actually going to look real, that wasn’t the goal. It did, however, always have to give the impression of a character speaking. This meant we needed to focus on getting the fidelity of the mouth to excel and the shapes the mouth takes on during pauses between words to look right. In essence the mouth needed to ‘feel real’ when you watched it in action. The size and shapes, variations, all had to be driven from voice clips. Those voice clips also needed to be controllable and form a list, with the most basic activation code possible. “Now We’re Talking!” is the result of months of testing, trials, experimentation, failures and successes. It is genuinely flexible, fast and easy to set up and use, it looks great in action and adds emotion, energy, drama and engagement to any characters which use it.
Can the system cope with multiple characters arguing, talking, singing all at the same time? Yes! Want proof?
No problem, check out this stress test video we created, featuring ‘One Day More’ from the hugely successful stage musical, Les Miserables. It features 30+ ensemble singers and 8 solo singers, all performing in sync, all recorded live, in real-time, in the Unity Editor.
Give your characters a voice so to speak!
“Now We’re Talking!” from Chatterware!