THANKS TO A HIGH-TECH ANIMATION OUTFIT CALLED MODERN CARTOONS, telling fact from fiction on TV is getting harder than ever. The Venice, Cal. company is the brainchild of Chris Walker, a 41-year-old cartoonst and sculptor who fits actors into bodysuits equipped with motion sensors and transforms them into cartoons cahracters. That may not be every actor's dream, but it beats waiting tables - Modern Cartoons characters have been on TV worldwide and have been featured this fall on CBS and NBC.

Modern Cartoons has a way to make real-time cartoons. Put on a $300.000 suit, prance around, and you've got a show!
BY HENRY GOLDBLATT
Instant Cartoon: Just Add Actor
COOL COMPANIES
Modern Cartoons CEO Chris Walker brings life to JOLIO, a pink hippo developed for Hippoposterous, a children's TV-show pilot.
 

 

 

Here's how it works: An actor dons a sensor-laden vest, headgear, gloves, and booties made out of the same stuff wet suits are made of. (Modern Cartoons has six suits; each costs $300,000.) A cable attached to the vest carries the signals generated by the actor's motions and speech to a substation, which then transmits the frequencies over Ethernet lines to a Silicon Graphics workstation. The computer matches the data with one of it's pre-designed characters, turning it into a real-time marionette mimicking the action of the actor in the suit. So when an actor kicks his leg, blinks, or yells, the cartoons character will too.

Only this fall did Modern Cartoons break into U.S. television. In September, Steve Oedekerk, the comedian who directed Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, put together a prime-time special for NBC in Which he wore Modern Cartoons body suits and played everything from a pig to a skeleton. Walker's greatest can be found Saturday mornings on CBS on a show called Wheel 2000. That's where you'll find Cyber Lucy, an animated character playing the role of Vanna who's every bit as entertaining as she cheers on the live contestants playing the network's junior version of Wheel of Fortune.

Modern Cartoons can't compete with the rich detail of traditional animation, but it does allow for timely plot lines and efficient production. While it takes almost a year to produce one episode of Fox's King of the Hill, a real-time animation show can be knocked off as quickly as a sitcom. Adults may soon get a taste of what that's like. Walker is developing a satirical political show for HBO. The stars? Animated versions of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. The challenge here, of course, will be to develop a plot line that's stranger than the one occurring in real life.

To monitor his movements, the actor performs in front of a big screen showing the actions of his animated alter ego.

Walker made it big when he persuaded executives from the Swedish media conglomerate Kinnevik to back him with a multimillion-dollar investment in 1996. Kinnevik and Walker had previously worked together to develop Modern Cartoons' first character, Hilbur, a chimp with canine looking features that developed a cult like following as the 'star' of a children's TV show in Sweden. To date, Modern Cartoons has developed 50 characters, including Carmen, a slinky redhead who will host real-life celebrities on a coming Portuguese talk show.