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 onward — 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 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 to 90-second animation took about 6 weeks to create. An episode of animated TV takes between 1–3 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 types of virtual avatar: realistic high-resolution CGI avatars, stylized CGI avatars and manipulated video ava
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