We recently completed a challenging character design, development and animation project for financial services giant Clarke American, through GDC marketing. The goal of the project was to create a virtual spokesperson to represent the companys new Interactive Voice Response System (IVR).
IVR is a computerized system that uses natural-language speech recognition to interact with account holders. Unlike old telephone systems with cumbersome menus, touch tone options and robotic voices, Clarke American’s new IVR system uses a real voice—a friendly, virtual consultant named Karen. Through a collaboration with Geomedia artists and animators, Clarke American now has a pretty face to accompany the voice of Karen.
During initial meetings between our design team and project leads, it was determined that Karen would be a “stylized” human character. Not a cartoon character but also not an attempt at photorealism. A character with recognizable human proportion but with slightly exaggerated, more emotive facial features. Early sketches, produced in-house, show the direction we settled on.
Additionally, various attire, color palettes, makeup and hairstyles were explored to portray Karen in different business and casual settings.
Karen began life in 3D as a single NURBS curve in Softimage/XSI. Rather than start with an existing data set, Karen was modeled by staff artists from scratch. We wanted the client to have a unique, proprietary asset. Additionally, control of edge-loop orientation and topology of the model would be essential for proper deformation during animation. Something we could not count on from a pre-built data set. Karen was sculpted in 3D using subdivision surfaces. To facilitate facial animation, a series of separate head models were also sculpted, each with various face expressions, mouth shapes and brow positions. Karen’s clothing, headset and the environments in which she would reside were also modeled by Geomedia artists.
With modeling completed and approved, the next step was texturing and rigging the model for animation. Texture maps were created in Photoshop as well as painted directly in 3D with BodyPaint 3D. A fully articulating bi-ped rig was set up in XSI and the model weighted for proper deformation. Our animation director Troy Davis set up an awesome rig for animating the facial features and phonemes. The various face shapes were linked to a custom built “heads up display” sort of rig via expressions. Eyebrows, mouth shapes, even wrinkles could all be animated by moving different sliders in the HUD. Shapes could be mixed with varying degrees of influence to create countless intermediate shapes or exaggerated facial expression.
Character development and animation is an extremely complex and time consuming undertaking. Our artists eagerly worked late evenings and weekends to see the project to completion. Both to meet the deadline and more importantly for the personal challenge and excitement the project created among the staff. Karen has been a resounding success for the client and Geomedia alike.