The Pizazz scene Flock of Birds

Report by Ken Clark.

In all probability, the next time you visit your local record shop a television screen will command your attention as it advertises the latest releases. One could be a new recording of Ravel’s Bolero by Pierre Boulez with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on the Deutsche Grammophon label, with computer-generated hauntingly compelling visuals provided by Pizazz’ Mario Cavalli.

The film was premiered at the Cardiff Animation Festival when Mario explained how it was made:
“Bolero uses a new 3D computer animation/motion capture system, Ascension Flock of Birds obtainable through Softimage. Musically, it is the same theme repeated with variations. I wanted to play out a visual analogy to that, so we filmed dancers performing a short dance to the Bolero. With the help of the Flock of Birds we were able to capture their movements and apply those movements to computer models. I started with human-like figures which progressively become more and more stylised abstract shapes Whatever we created on the computer could be made to perform the original dance. It was quite an experimental exercise.

Bolero.

For the technically minded, the Flock of Birds (FOB) is a six degree-of-freedom measuring device that can be configured to simultaneously track the position and orientation of up to thirty receivers by a transmitter. Each receiver is capable of making from 10 to 144 measurements per second of its position and orientation, the FOB determines this by transmitting a pulsed DC magnetic field that is simultaneously measured by all receivers in the flock. From the measured magnetic field characteristics, each receiver independently computes its position and orientation and makes this information available to the host computer.

In practice, this meant that Mario’s dancers had sensors attached to their bodies which trailed a harness of wires behind them wherever they went, thereby imposing limits on the choreography. Until the rope of wires is rendered unnecessary FOB will remain a cumbersome and restrictive solution to the task of replicating human movement. Nevertheless, Bolero does have an intriguing allure all its own, suggesting many applications in the Virtual Reality field.

Mario began his career at Cosgrove Hall Studios, then went to Richard Williams where he met Caroline Cruikshank, Pamela Dennis, and Eric Goldberg. Caroline is a Canadian who worked at Hanna Barbers’s before coming to England in 1980. She told me:

“I decided Richard Williams was the person to re-learn from, so I came over and got my papers sorted out, My grandmother was born here, which was great because it meant I could take all the time I needed to get a job. But I was fortunate, obtaining a position as assistant animator fairly quickly at Richard Williams studio, where I stayed for over three years. And, as Mario has said, that’s where we met.

“We worked in the same room as Eric Goldberg – I was his assistant, and he gave me some very good training. After I went freelance I worked primarily in London before going to Paris briefly to work on an Asterix feature.”

Meanwhile, Mario and Pamela had left Williams to set up Pizazz where they were later joined by Eric. Mike Young, creator of SuperTed, tried to persuade Mario to move to Wales to work on the series. Mario was not sold on the idea, he considered it to be a retrograde step, rather like returning to Cosgrove Hall. But Mike Young was very persistent, suggesting Mario might like to make an episode in London. That seemed like a good idea. The deal would ensure a cash flow enabling them to attend to rent, fixtures and fittings, and, while Mario and Eric worked on SuperTed, Pamela would chase the commercial work.

That was ten years ago. Since then, they have concentrated on commercials, fitting in the occasional personal work between commissions.

Eric Goldberg left the company nearly four years ago to work on the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, and is now directing the next Disney feature, Pocahontas.

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