Digital influencers and the dollars that follow them

Sunny Dhillon Contributor Sunny Dhillon is a partner at Signia Venture Partners. More posts by this contributor Security tokens will be coming soon to an exchange near you Amazon’s next conquest will be apparel Animated characters are as old as human storytelling itself, dating back thousands of years to cave drawings that depict animals in […]

Animated characters are as old as human storytelling itself, dating back thousands of years to cave drawings that depict animals in motion. It was really in the last century, however—a period bookended by the first animated short film in 1908 and Pixar’s success with computer animation with Toy Story from 1995 onwards—that animation leapt forward. Fundamentally, this period of great innovation sought to make it easier to create an animated story for an audience to passively consume in a curated medium, such as a feature-length film.

Our current century could be set for even greater advances in the art and science of bringing characters to life. Digital influencers—virtual or animated humans that live natively on social media—will be central to that undertaking. Digital influencers don’t merely represent the penetration of cartoon characters into yet another medium, much as they sprang from newspaper strips to TV and the multiplex. Rather, digital humans on social media represent the first instance in which fictional entities act in the same plane of communication as you and I—regular people—do. Imagine if stories about Mickey Mouse were told over a telephone or in personalized letters to fans. That’s the kind of jump we’re talking about.

Social media is a new storytelling medium, much as film was a century ago. As with film then, we have yet to transmit virtual characters to this new medium in a sticky way.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t digital characters living their lives on social channels right now. The pioneers have arrived: Lil’ Miquela, Astro, Bermuda, and Shudu are prominent examples. But they have are still only notable for their novelty, not yet their ubiquity. They represent the output of old animation techniques applied to a new medium. This Techcrunch article did a great job describing the current digital influencer landscape.

So why haven’t animated characters taken off on social media platforms?  It’s largely an issue of scale—it’s expensive and time-consuming to create animated characters and to depict their adventures.  One 2017 estimate stated that a 60-90 second animation took about 6 weeks.  An episode of animated TV takes between 13 months to produce, typically with large teams in South Korea doing much of the animation legwork. That pace simply doesn’t work in a medium that calls for new original content multiple times a day.

Yet the technical piece of the puzzle is falling into place, which is primarily what I want to talk about today. Traditionally, virtual characters were created by a team of experts—not scalable—in the following way:

  • Create a 3D model
  • Texture the model and add additional materials
  • Rig the 3D model skeleton
  • Animate the 3D model
  • Introduce character into desired scene

 

Today, there are generally three different types of virtual avatar:  realistic high-resolution CGI avatars, stylized CGI avatars, and manipulated video avatars. Each has its strengths and pitfalls, and the fast-approaching world of scaled digital influencers will likely incorporate aspects of all three.

The digital influencers mentioned above are all high-resolution CGI avatars. It’s unsurprising that this tech has breathed life into the most prominent digital influencers so far—this type of avatar offers the most creative latitude and photorealism. You can create an original character and have her carry out varied activities.

The process for their creation borrows most from the old-school CGI pipeline described above, though accelerated through the use of tools like Daz3D for animation, Moka Studio for rigging, and Rokoko for motion capture. It’s old wine in new bottles. Naturally, it shares the same bottlenecks as the old-school CGI pipeline: creating characters in this way consumes a lot of time and expertise.

Though researchers like Ari Shapiro at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies are currently working on ways to automate the creation of high-resolution CGI avatars, that bottleneck remains for obstacle for digital influencers entering the mainstream.

Stylized CGI avatars, on the other hand, have entered the mainstream. If you have an iPhone or use Snapchat, chances are you have one. Apple, Samsung, Pinscreen, Loom.ai, Embody Digital, Genies, and Expressive.ai are just some of the companies playing in this space. These avatars, while likely to spread ubiquitously a la Bitmoji before them, are limited in scope.

While they extend the ability to create an animated character to anyone who uses an associated app, that creation and personalization is circumscribed: the avatar’s range is limited for the purposes of what we’re discussing in this article. It’s not so much a technology for creating new digital humans as it is a tool for injecting a visual shorthand for someone into the digital world. You’ll use it to embellish your Snapchat game, but storytellers will be unlikely to use these avatars to create a spiritual successor to Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear (though they will be a big advertising / brand partnership opportunity nonetheless).

Video manipulation—you probably know it as deepfakes—is another piece of tech that is speeding virtual or fictional characters into the mainstream. As the name implies, however, it’s more about warping reality to create something new. Anyone who has seen Nicolas Cage’s striking features dropped onto Amy Adams’ body in a Superman film will understand what I’m talking about.

Open source packages like this one allow almost anyone to create a deepfake (with some technical knowhow—your grandma probably hasn’t replaced her time-honored Bingo sessions with some casual deepfaking). It’s principally used by hobbyists, though recently we’ve seen startups like Synthesia crop up with business use cases. You can use deepfake tech for mimicry, but we haven’t yet seen it used for creating original characters. It shares some of the democratizing aspects of stylized CGI avatars, and there are likely many creative applications for the tech that simply haven’t been realized yet.

While none of these technology stacks on their own currently enable digital humans at scale, when combined they may make up the wardrobe that takes us into Narnia. Video manipulation, for example, could be used to scale realistic high-res characters like Lil’ Miquela through accelerating the creation of new stories and tableaux for her to inhabit. Nearly all of the most famous animated characters have been stylized, and I wouldn’t bet against social media’s Snow White being stylized too. What is clear is that the technology to create digital influencers at scale is nearing a tipping point. When we hit that tipping point, these creations will transform entertainment and storytelling.

Digital influencers and the dollars that follow them

Sunny Dhillon Contributor Sunny Dhillon is a partner at Signia Venture Partners. More posts by this contributor Security tokens will be coming soon to an exchange near you Amazon’s next conquest will be apparel Animated characters are as old as human storytelling itself, dating back thousands of years to cave drawings that depict animals in […]

Animated characters are as old as human storytelling itself, dating back thousands of years to cave drawings that depict animals in motion. It was really in the last century, however—a period bookended by the first animated short film in 1908 and Pixar’s success with computer animation with Toy Story from 1995 onwards—that animation leapt forward. Fundamentally, this period of great innovation sought to make it easier to create an animated story for an audience to passively consume in a curated medium, such as a feature-length film.

Our current century could be set for even greater advances in the art and science of bringing characters to life. Digital influencers—virtual or animated humans that live natively on social media—will be central to that undertaking. Digital influencers don’t merely represent the penetration of cartoon characters into yet another medium, much as they sprang from newspaper strips to TV and the multiplex. Rather, digital humans on social media represent the first instance in which fictional entities act in the same plane of communication as you and I—regular people—do. Imagine if stories about Mickey Mouse were told over a telephone or in personalized letters to fans. That’s the kind of jump we’re talking about.

Social media is a new storytelling medium, much as film was a century ago. As with film then, we have yet to transmit virtual characters to this new medium in a sticky way.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t digital characters living their lives on social channels right now. The pioneers have arrived: Lil’ Miquela, Astro, Bermuda, and Shudu are prominent examples. But they have are still only notable for their novelty, not yet their ubiquity. They represent the output of old animation techniques applied to a new medium. This Techcrunch article did a great job describing the current digital influencer landscape.

So why haven’t animated characters taken off on social media platforms?  It’s largely an issue of scale—it’s expensive and time-consuming to create animated characters and to depict their adventures.  One 2017 estimate stated that a 60-90 second animation took about 6 weeks.  An episode of animated TV takes between 13 months to produce, typically with large teams in South Korea doing much of the animation legwork. That pace simply doesn’t work in a medium that calls for new original content multiple times a day.

Yet the technical piece of the puzzle is falling into place, which is primarily what I want to talk about today. Traditionally, virtual characters were created by a team of experts—not scalable—in the following way:

  • Create a 3D model
  • Texture the model and add additional materials
  • Rig the 3D model skeleton
  • Animate the 3D model
  • Introduce character into desired scene

 

Today, there are generally three different types of virtual avatar:  realistic high-resolution CGI avatars, stylized CGI avatars, and manipulated video avatars. Each has its strengths and pitfalls, and the fast-approaching world of scaled digital influencers will likely incorporate aspects of all three.

The digital influencers mentioned above are all high-resolution CGI avatars. It’s unsurprising that this tech has breathed life into the most prominent digital influencers so far—this type of avatar offers the most creative latitude and photorealism. You can create an original character and have her carry out varied activities.

The process for their creation borrows most from the old-school CGI pipeline described above, though accelerated through the use of tools like Daz3D for animation, Moka Studio for rigging, and Rokoko for motion capture. It’s old wine in new bottles. Naturally, it shares the same bottlenecks as the old-school CGI pipeline: creating characters in this way consumes a lot of time and expertise.

Though researchers like Ari Shapiro at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies are currently working on ways to automate the creation of high-resolution CGI avatars, that bottleneck remains for obstacle for digital influencers entering the mainstream.

Stylized CGI avatars, on the other hand, have entered the mainstream. If you have an iPhone or use Snapchat, chances are you have one. Apple, Samsung, Pinscreen, Loom.ai, Embody Digital, Genies, and Expressive.ai are just some of the companies playing in this space. These avatars, while likely to spread ubiquitously a la Bitmoji before them, are limited in scope.

While they extend the ability to create an animated character to anyone who uses an associated app, that creation and personalization is circumscribed: the avatar’s range is limited for the purposes of what we’re discussing in this article. It’s not so much a technology for creating new digital humans as it is a tool for injecting a visual shorthand for someone into the digital world. You’ll use it to embellish your Snapchat game, but storytellers will be unlikely to use these avatars to create a spiritual successor to Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear (though they will be a big advertising / brand partnership opportunity nonetheless).

Video manipulation—you probably know it as deepfakes—is another piece of tech that is speeding virtual or fictional characters into the mainstream. As the name implies, however, it’s more about warping reality to create something new. Anyone who has seen Nicolas Cage’s striking features dropped onto Amy Adams’ body in a Superman film will understand what I’m talking about.

Open source packages like this one allow almost anyone to create a deepfake (with some technical knowhow—your grandma probably hasn’t replaced her time-honored Bingo sessions with some casual deepfaking). It’s principally used by hobbyists, though recently we’ve seen startups like Synthesia crop up with business use cases. You can use deepfake tech for mimicry, but we haven’t yet seen it used for creating original characters. It shares some of the democratizing aspects of stylized CGI avatars, and there are likely many creative applications for the tech that simply haven’t been realized yet.

While none of these technology stacks on their own currently enable digital humans at scale, when combined they may make up the wardrobe that takes us into Narnia. Video manipulation, for example, could be used to scale realistic high-res characters like Lil’ Miquela through accelerating the creation of new stories and tableaux for her to inhabit. Nearly all of the most famous animated characters have been stylized, and I wouldn’t bet against social media’s Snow White being stylized too. What is clear is that the technology to create digital influencers at scale is nearing a tipping point. When we hit that tipping point, these creations will transform entertainment and storytelling.

What Is CGI Animation?

cgi-scripts

Have you ever watched a Pixar film and wondered what it is about CGI animation that makes for some of the best animated movies? Actually, most of the time, CGI is invisible. If it’s done well, you won’t even realize it’s CGI. If you’re older, you probably remember Scooby-Doo or The Flintstones occupying your Saturday mornings. But the animations of the 1970s and 1980s are nothing like they are today. By the 2000s, cartoons started looking just a bit more real. What is CGI animation, exactly? And what is it about CGI animation that gives the characters and overall imagery…

Read the full article: What Is CGI Animation?

Have you ever watched a Pixar film and wondered what it is about CGI animation that makes for some of the best animated movies? Actually, most of the time, CGI is invisible. If it’s done well, you won’t even realize it’s CGI.

If you’re older, you probably remember Scooby-Doo or The Flintstones occupying your Saturday mornings. But the animations of the 1970s and 1980s are nothing like they are today. By the 2000s, cartoons started looking just a bit more real.

What is CGI animation, exactly? And what is it about CGI animation that gives the characters and overall imagery more realism? And how has the technology evolved? In this article, we’ll answer what you want to know.

A Brief History of Animation

Many decades ago, animators were artists who drew pictures by hand. Traditional animation consisted of a whole team of animators who drew and colored images on a “cel”—transparent celluloid sheets on top of a background image to create a multi-layered frame.

As a result, segments of an image could change from frame to frame without redrawing the entire picture. By manipulating the drawings in each layer between frames, animators would create what many adults today remember as the traditional cartoon.

In a well-known use of animation, the original Star Wars trilogy received a digital makeover after all three prequel movies launched.

Many of the (fairly controversial) changes to Star Wars digital versions were done using this approach, but with computers. They created multiple frames of images each second in order to generate the visual effect of animation.

The Digital Precursor to CGI

As computing processing power increased and the complexity of graphics software grew, animations became more complex than traditional artists could compete with. One of the first popular expositions of CGI was in the late 1990s, with the introduction of the GIF.

GIFs package together a series of static images which progress from frame to frame at a set time interval.

In that sense a GIF is similar to a slideshow—just an extremely specific one. The size of a GIF is typically tiny, reflected in their usually low-quality images. This allowed them to gain popularity when internet speeds were limited.

Now, this is all grade school-level compared to the impressive feats of 3D CGI animation technology today. How did we get from 1990s computer animation to the sort of IMAX 3D animated movies you love to watch? The simple answer is processing power.

CGI Technologies Enter the Modern Era

As a result of Moore’s Law, the cost of computing has gone down while the amount of processing power available has increased. This allows animators to harness increasingly higher-powered computers to create their models.

It became possible for animators to place 3D models in three-dimensional space and make them interact with each other. Gone are the layers from the 2D approach, and in their place came increasingly smaller sections of objects. This level of detail allowed for the realistic output of modern CGI animation.

One of the most notable uses of CGI in the 1990s was in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The Terminator T-1000 robots were given a liquid metal form that allowed them to morph into anything they touched.

Terminator 2 Liquid Metal Form

Alongside this, a small film production studio was gearing up to change the way people make animated films. Headed by the former Disney animator John Lasseter, Pixar created some of the first realistic CGI animations with Toy Story in 1995.

The success of the film and Pixar’s magic animation paved the way for Steve Jobs, who was an investor in the company, to return to Apple and eventually create the iPod.

CGI Becomes Affordable and Goes DIY

The more affordable cost of computing was one of the most profound parts of the technological revolution. This lower cost means that it’s now possible for anyone with a computer and some time to create their own music, writing, and digital animations.

Modern Animation Software

One of the first pieces of CGI software to enter the mainstream was Autodesk’s AutoCAD in 1982. Back then, it wasn’t feasible to run AutoCAD yourself at home.

However, now with its Maya CGI software, you can use the company’s 35 years of experience to create your own digital animations. It’s far from the only option though; the free and open-source Blender provides another option.

Video platforms like YouTube and Vimeo have allowed creators to easily upload and share their work. You can find short professional-grade CGI-based films made entirely with free software. Using a combination of tools like Blender, GIMP, Inkscape, Source Film Maker, and similar, it’s possible to create works of art and video which would have been unimaginable 30 years ago.

CGI: A Revolution Colored by Nostalgia

3D CGI animation has evolved from basic cartoon animation into simulated, highly realistic worlds. By combining physics with art, CGI slices up the world into the smallest segments possible and creates models of how those tiny real-world parts move in a stunningly realistic animated world.

Some lament the decline in traditional animation, and some even feel that CGI is doing more harm to movies than good, but success is hard to argue with. Early CGI releases like Toy Story were such a success that the takeover was all but certain.

Traditional animation will always have its place, with classic cartoons held in reverence. Netflix has plenty of classic-styled cartoons aimed at adults if you’re looking to recapture the art form.

Read the full article: What Is CGI Animation?