My journey to Bobbekins began a bit like this….
“This is the magic castle where the wizard sits and teaches,” announces my tour guide. The colors are vibrant, and the room is full of majesty and magic. She teases me with the wonders that abound, and continues; “A big part of our story is here.” Where am I, I think? I was transported into a land of colors and shapes, books, candy, castles, glitter and sparkles, and buttons that zip me across this strange but intriguing universe. I ponder who are these fantastic creatures of various colors – red, green, blue and yellow, all with eye-popping curiosity? Ah, I am told that these inquisitive beings are the Bobbekins. A couch nearby takes us to five main Holodecks; from there so many lands unfold, opening up infinite possibilities for stories yet untold.
My tour guide takes me back to the castle, asking, “Would you join me on the magic carpet here? Oops, beware the hole!” She laughs, as I step around it, then exclaiming, “This is Toy City. Welcome!”
That is where the main stories take place in this wonderful adventure now set into motion by legendary special effects artist/engineer Tony Dyson of Star Wars fame (and so many other Hollywood blockbusters) and professional Dutch filmmaker/machinimatographer Chantal Harvey. My host today is Chantal, also dressed as one of the stars, Clive, a Bobbekin.
Welcome to Toy City
Chantal explains, “Toy City is a living city; it forever changes, like overnight. We have around 100 avatars involved. Most are fantasy creatures.” She tells me, “Tony built the sets on the ground. I am dressed as one of the stars – Clive!”
“Adorable,” I respond. “Wow, I can see this in the stores!”
Chantal Harvey adds, “and on t-shirts.” Recently, Chantal took her project to a university nearby where she lives, and presented it to 74 marketing students, and had them experiment with some test marketing. “The reports so far look good.”
The Bobbekins are loveable fantasy creatures with the ultimate mission of teaching children from all around the world through interactive play. Chantal explains, “I’d like to think of our series as somewhere between Sesame Street and Teletubbies, and we are going for high quality. We have strived for the best graphic art, and Tony is the best writer, and we bring all our experience into this project. I have been in Second Life for over four years. But working with Tony has helped me see Second Life in a wonderful way, almost like Hollywood, but easier. We don’t use the pre-existing Sims as designed by others – we control the environment.”
Although both work thousands of miles apart, they have been spending most of their days, and many late nights together in Second Life, implementing their vision for what they believe is the next step in professional animation production – machinima, or what Tony calls “real time animation,” a term he coined way back when he was in the midst of production for various Hollywood block buster movies. What many people don’t realize is that Tony is also a children’s book writer, and his love for fantasy worlds was a natural for this ambitious project that includes a television show series and digital e-books.
The coming together of so many elements still amazes them. All their hard work and vision is now a reality, at least virtually! Animation is at the core of this project.
Netdreamer: Cutting Edge Real Time Animation
“I quoted the phrase ‘real time animation’ in 1983. It was a direct form of animation that is quite amazing, a totally different way of filming, making characters and building sets. There are some challenges. The movements in SL are still second rate, so you must find tricks to compensate.” Because of the difficulty of using human avatars, Tony adds, “Second Life lends itself to fantasy creatures.” And that is something Tony has quite extensive experience with, the creation of imaginative characters. He continues, “The Bobbekins were given to us. I worked on the stories, and there are seven main characters, with which you can pick and choose in story or game forms, or both. From the start, I liked the idea that they would be like fairies from a different world, living in houses of toys or teapots, all in a full size city. All in all, I have built 26 different sets for this TV series.”
With Chantal, Tony works under the company name of Netdreamer. Chantal states, “We work a lot; spending 5 to 8 hours daily planning, organizing, filming, refilming, testing, writing, and filming.” She adds, “Think of it this way, we are creating a virtual school. It is virtual teaching, in essence teaching the basics to children through a TV Series.” You can sense her excitement, having spent so many months on this project.
Beyond Tony and Chantal, they have 3 people on staff in various capacities. “The biggest joy and challenge is teamwork,” she notes. “Our whole project is run like a professional studio. For this project, we have fantastic custom created avatars. The Bobbekins were especially created for this series, and for now we are targeting pre-school and down the road, older children.”
In her role as producer of the 48 Hour Film Project, she met Tony, who she asked to judge the 2011 competition. The most exciting thing for Chantal is to “pick Tony’s mind. I had to think differently, plan everything, lighting and so many elements. It is a big job, but we laugh a lot, and we certainly are professional about it.”
Fantasy Abounds in Second Life
There must be “truth” in a story, that credible connection between the audience and the characters. Tony explains, “We tend to look carefully at humanoid expressions and actions. Those outside of SL still think ‘what am I looking at,’ when they look at human representations through Real Time Animation. We found out that by using fantasy creatures in SL, your audience doesn’t miss those emotions. You can put some feeling into the character in a unique way, one that is not comparable to how we would expect a human to act, for instance. Human bodies are still rigid in here. It does take time learning what works in here, and learning what camera movements work even for fantasy creatures.”
The magical race of the Bobbekins might be considered comparable to fairies and elves. Second Life has always been a friendly host to such beings. The themed subjects are what you would anticipate for the series (i.e. the alphabet, fruits and vegetables) within storylinesinspired by the professional wisdom and caring spirits of Tony, Chantal and those who have helped them along the way.
The Bobbekins spend all their time helping others, “like all magical creatures might be expected to in such a place,” notes Tony. As the story goes, they even launched their own television station so they could share their lessons with children. They travelled like nomads from planet to planet, until one day they discover Toy City, and the plot thickens when the Bobbekins find a way to make a home through good deeds.
Hmmm. Good deeds. Maybe we might learn a bit in Second Life from the Bobbekins!
Tony muses, saying, “You know, I have to say, I like it when a plan comes together.” And this one has, most definitely. Tony reminds us, a lesson learned from having a full life, “It’s exciting to teach children.” Like the Bobbekins, Tony likes to share his wisdom from his life’s adventures, one that has taken him to Hollywood and across the world, virtual worlds too!