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Motion Capture Comics Take On New Frontiers


The ComicCon dust had settled and attendees had long since returned to their routine when four men set out to Los Angeles one hot August afternoon.  They came to spread the word about the motion comics of “Sparks.”


Sparks is a hero who lacks super human skills.  He’s an individual beset by the follies all men experience: pain, failure, accusations, defeat.  In a town overcome by rain and perpetual darkness, Sparks bears the burden of helping humankind while battling feelings of intense personal failures.


Originally published in 2008 as a comic book, writer and creator William Katt proposed the idea of taking the printed pages and re-working them to reach an additional audience.   His co-writer and producer Christopher Folino felt that the motion comic book would be the way to go.  Motion comics take the comic cells found on the pages of the comic book, and run them together like an animated movie.  At the time Folino and Katt decided to adapt “Sparks” as a motion comic, their competitors did not provide sophisticated visual packages.  Some motion comics utilized pop-up bubbles for the character’s dialogue.  Some utilized one actor to record all character voice-overs, regardless of sex or ethnicity.  Still others made no attempt at creating an appearance of the character’s mouths moving, resulting in an illustrated version of a book on tape.


Additionally, some early motion comics utilized a series of designers to piece together the animation.


“These projects had different freelancers working on creating the motion comic,” said Folino.  “They all took different sections.   This created a disconnect in the overall look.  We wanted ‘Sparks‘ to have fluidity.”


“When we initially created the comic book, we got really lucky by hiring JM Ringuet, a French artist who lives in China, to illustrate the cells,” said Folino.  “He was able to capture the perfect mood of this city that never has good weather.  It’s like Seattle, but worse.  Animating this artwork was going to make or break the project.”


To bring these rich comic cells to life, Folino turned to animation director Sean Ruge.   Ruge came from a gaming background where he not only created action sequences but also developed backgrounds.  The process of motion capture would require Ruge isolate elements in each cell, animate these elements, and fill in backgrounds once elements of the comic began moving.  Using After Effects and Photoshop, Ruge developed the process of animating the comic frames.


“Nothing was standard or textbook; we were establishing a blueprint,” said Ruge.  “I had to think more like a filmmaker as to how to make the action compelling.  There had to be different layers in motion performance.”  


Ruge followed a general rule to help him make decisions about what to animate: the more that’s brought to life, the better the action looks.  He focused on isolating and moving mid-ground elements that could be in motion, such as smoke or trash cans.

“Each component of the comic book’s art is modeled in separate layers,” said Ruge.    “I’m always looking for ways to create more realism, such as wrapping faces around 3D mesh and creating more 3D backgrounds.   The application ‘Sparks’ uses places 2D production in a 3D environment.   The matte painting is in the foreground, the element is in the background.  This is really pushing the envelope and creating fluidity.”


To enhance the filmatic experience, Folino and Katt wanted to provide lip syncing to the animation.  Finding talented actors to bring the characters to life became another crucial step.  They turned to veteran voice actor Michael Bell to provide the voice of a main character, as well as serve as vocal casting.


“It was important to have professional actors,” said Bell.  “I wanted union actors and knew who would work.  I brought new people in that I felt fit characters.  It was a gamble for these actors, but because I had already agreed to be part of the production, and the characters were fulfilling characters that really stretched their abilities.  Working on ‘Sparks‘ provided a great opportunity.”


In addition to Bell, the voice cast includes Charlie Brill, Kevin Sherwood, Courtenay Taylor, Ashley Bell and Michael Pare.

Folino worked on developing the audio track that backed the actors.  The first episode contained 150 sound effects coinciding with the action.  Music also had to be obtained for the series.


“We licensed out music from the 30s and 40s,” said Folino.  “The music fits the mood, atmosphere, and the scenes perfectly.  Each episode lasts six to eight minutes, the span of the audiences’ attention.”


 Folino and Katt were excited with the new media model they developed that lifted the printed page out of a comic book and literally gave it ‘sound and vision.’  Instead of putting the video on the internet, Folino and Katt decided to work with Apple and develop an iPhone application.  


“Apple worked financially in regards to customer demand and profit bracket,” said Folino.  


“The application provides great usability: it’s very easy to download,” added Katt.  “When the motion comic was completed, I sent a message out on my Facebook page with the ‘Sparks‘ link.  People were commenting on my wall about how great the motion comic was.  It was nice to get that response.”