October 10, 2019
Animation students bring busts to life to kickstart interactive experience at Canton museum.
By Michael C. Butz
The Pro Football Hall of Fame prides itself on innovation, education and engagement, and integral to its approach is interactivity.
Take, for example, its A Game for Life exhibit, which immerses visitors in a multi-sensory experience featuring holographic representations of NFL legends Joe Namath, George Halas and Vince Lombardi.
It relies on cutting-edge technology, but in late 2018, the hall of fame sought to push the boundaries even further. So, it turned to the Cleveland Institute of Art to enliven bronze sculptures immortalizing the NFL’s most celebrated players.
“We always wanted to do something where we could make the busts speak to the rich history we get from the hall-of-famers when we speak to them,” says George Veras, the hall of fame’s chief operating officer and executive producer.
Listening to the busts creates more opportunities for interaction than do traditional video screens, Veras says. Museum leaders wanted visitors to be able to hold up a tablet, like an iPad, in front of busts and then ask questions the hall-of-famers could answer on screen using pre-programmed responses.
“Plus,” Veras adds, “talking busts are just cool.”
To bring the augmented reality idea—and the busts—to life, the hall of fame enlisted the expertise of CIA’s Animation Department.
“We were part of the initial research and development of it,” says Animation chair Anthony Scalmato, who brought students Shep Turner, Joe Williams and Neil Bendana onto the project.
“I never would’ve expected sports and animation to mix. Those two don’t normally fall in the same realm,” says Bendana, now a senior. “It was a different project—one I’d never seen or heard being undertaken, which automatically made it intriguing.”
The trio of students was tasked with researching software that would allow them to both accomplish the goal and do so on a short deadline. Part of the challenge was that their source material was a photograph.
“We were essentially manipulating a 2D image to move and work in 3D,” Bendana says. “We couldn’t map it in 3D. So, we had to warp and push the image to see how far we could make the head turn, make the eyes move. You’d have to move the eyes at one point, then you’d move the head, then the mouth, and I’d somehow try to make it all work in conjunction.”
The students started with LaDainian Tomlinson, whose mannerisms and speech patterns Bendana studied closely. The audio to be used was the former San Diego Chargers running back’s hall-of-fame induction speech.
Using a program called CrazyTalk, and after “hundreds of different takes,” the students hit their mark. But then arose another challenge: Under the same parameters and with only one week in which to work, they had to bring to life the bust of John Madden, a Super Bowl-winning coach for the Oakland Raiders, a longtime prime-time TV broadcaster and the personality behind EA Sports' long-running Madden NFL video game franchise. The students were again up to the task.
“From what we heard, John was really happy with it,” Scalmato says.
A hall of fame visit helped inspire the students in their work.
“Once we stepped into the hall of fame and saw all of the busts, and the idea behind it ... the sense of grandiosity and how important it is (set in),” he says. “You’re capturing history, almost. That really pushed us to try to do it justice. These guys left their mark on the game of football, so we really wanted to honor them.”
‘I loved the partnership’
Today, visitors to the hall of fame can interact with Madden’s bust as well as that of former New York Giants defensive lineman Michael Strahan. Ultimately, those projects were executed by StatMuse, a San Francisco-based creative technology company the hall of fame identified as having the time and resources to carry the project. Though the CIA students’ work isn’t what is currently in use in Canton, what they accomplished in establishing proof of concept was critical.
“CIA was integral to that important first step,” Veras says. “We wanted to see what it would look like before moving to a group that would cost a lot of money. ... They did a great job.”
Further, Veras described the hall of fame's working relationship with CIA as “seamless.”
“I loved the partnership. It was professional and very enjoyable,” he says. “We had to understand the tools CIA was using, and they had to interpret our vision and how we described it to them. In that sense, the CIA experience was incredibly efficient and a tribute to what CIA does with its teachers and students.”
He felt as though the hall of fame and CIA were “interlocked” and “together” from the outset.
“It was an efficient meeting, a meeting that had people finishing other people's sentences. It was obvious that both parties knew their stuff to get to something new and exciting,” Veras says. “Anthony brought the right team members to the table. No one was late, and people wanted to get it done. The follow-up was tremendous, and follow-up is usually where deals fall through.”
The partnership materialized as a Community Projects course, via which companies and projects are lined up so students can obtain real-world experience. Regarding the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Scalmato feels working with what might seem like an unlikely partner helps students realize that animation opportunities are all around.
“It isn't just film and television, and we show that pretty clearly with where our grads do internships. They're all over the place, working for space (NASA), theme parks (Castle Noel), children's television (Sesame Street) and greeting card companies (American Greetings). Pretty much anywhere there's a screen, an animator has an opportunity to design,” he says. “We get students at the Cartoon Networks, the Nickelodeons, DreamWorks (and) Disney, but the reality is, in the Midwest, we have to think about how storytelling can be used in other ways.”
Bendana said the project expanded his horizons, adding that he found it gratifying to work on a professional level with a high-profile client.
“I gained a lot of perspective in terms of my own work ethic and how to operate in the real world,” he says. “The experience helped me grow personally, professionally and artistically.”
Says Veras, “Education is a huge part of our mission. We understood they wanted to stretch their students, and this was the perfect project to stretch their students in a new space.”
He added the hall of fame is determining what its next step will be in bringing to life the museum’s remaining 360 busts, weighing factors related to space and acoustics in addition to the animation and technology. When that next step takes place, CIA may again play a significant role.
“What CIA did definitely left the door open for future collaborations,” Veras says.
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