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Harry Shearer, well animated

Harry_shearer_photo_2Harry Shearer is a multimedia kind of guy. His talents are on display on film, TV, radio, CDs, the Internet, video games -- you name the medium, he's there. And soon, he'll be working a yet another format: motion capture animation. At the National Assn. of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas today, Shearer gave attendees a sample of the work to come, showing a brief skit that integrated Shearer's voice, expressions and gestures into a pair of computer-generated figures. The official version, due later this year on My Damn Channel, will have Shearer lampooning the presidential candidates, political leaders and media figures who populate the 2008 campaign.

My Damn Channel is an online video destination that Rob Barnett (ex-MTV, VH1 and CBS Radio) launched last summer. Shearer has his own channel there, which he updates weekly with a mixture of skits, interviews, satiric music videos and footage of media fixtures in unguarded pre-broadcast moments. One of the things that drew him to the site, Shearer said, was the opportunity to work without any interference from a network/studio/bill-paying corporate exec. That freedom, combined with the steady advance of technology, is enabling Shearer to do something he's been trying to do for a decade.

My_damn_channel_logo_2He frequently uses his talent at mimicry to make parodies of politicians and celebrities on his radio show, but those bits are audio only (obviously). "My goal was to try to move that work to a visual medium," he said, but filming live-action skits was too expensive and time-consuming. That's why he decided to use motion-capture animation. Even then, it took years to find a production team capable of doing the animation quickly, affordably and with the control Shearer sought over the virtual characters’ expressions and movements. “It needs to be my performance as President Bush, or his father, or Bill Clinton … coming through the animation,” he said.

The demo shown at NAB wasn't Pixar-grade material, yet it was still impressive. It compared favorably with video game animation, only with more expressive characters. What's particularly noteworthy is the short turnaround time -- Shearer said the videos will go online five days after the motion-capture scenes are shot -- and the cost, which Barnett said fits the My Damned Channel low-budget model. According to Shearer, the motion-capture approach turns the economics of video production upside-down. The cost of the sets, props and lighting will be negligible – they’ll all be computer generated. Instead, the major expense will be in creating the virtual characters that populate the sketches. They'll be doppelgangers of the Washington political elite for starters, but the roster will grow after the election. The technique lets Shearer perform all the roles, as he does on radio. The plan is to start relatively small, with two characters per sketch, and work from there. Look for the first weekly episode to appear on My Damn Channel sometime this summer.

The photo of Harry Shearer is courtesy of his website.

 

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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