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Cartoon characters talk back

Pat Patera

In the Land of Oz, The Wizard was the man behind the screen.

In Carson City, Gary Jesch is the digital puppeteer behind a cast of more than 100 animated characters that interact in real time with real people at corporate meetings, trade shows and theme parks.

“Some people have never had the experience of talking to a cartoon character,” he says. “And having it talk back.”

A pen and tablet controls each digital cartoon character. But the puppeteer controls the audience.

“As a performer, I see the gamut,” says Jesch. “Kids, suits from New York, housewives.”

Says fellow puppeteer Dana Stamos, “People will say and do things with a character that they never would for a human being. A kid is intrigued to open up to it. An adult may close down because they’re not sure what to do.”

Jesch, a University of Nevada, Reno, graduate in broadcast journalism, started the company, CHOPS & Associates Live Animation, at Incline Village in 1993. (CHOPS is short for “Cyber Human on a Performance System.”) His first character was a virtual Mark Twain.

“It ran on a computer that had to be brought in on a forklift,” he recalls. (Today, the system runs on French software ToonMX, and CHOPS is a reseller of the software in the United States.)

Since the company’s early days, trade shows have proved a good market for human-operated digital characters that shill for clients from colorful projection screens. A bubble-screen version looks like a talking head in a balloon. It can be posted in the aisle to entice people into the booth, or amuse them in a hospitality suite.

The characters also strut their stuff at corporate events. Jesch recalls a shareholders meeting at which a digital character raised the awkward questions.

“When a cartoon character brings it up, it’s easier on everyone because it’s not them,” he says.

Trade shows running three to five days have been the company’s bread-and-butter. The daily fee of about $4,000 features existing characters. Should the client want a custom character, figure a development fee of $10,000 to $15,000. About 200 man-hours go into character development.

Digital puppeteer Bob Heffernan is joined by three artists who work remotely as independent contractors to round out the company’s staff.

“It’s not a hierarchical structure,” says Jesch. “We share the wearing of the many hats. I’ve been blessed with people willing to take the initiative.”

CHOPS now is training artists in India to handle animation should the firm enjoy a deluge of new business.

It’s looking for that business in three new markets: casinos, sports facilities and theme parks. And has booked attendance at casino and sports trade shows this fall to launch in those industries.

Last fall, the company attended the expo of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a major theme park convention hosting 12,000 booths.

“Everybody wanted it,” Stamos recalls. “Their eyes got big and they said, ‘We have to have it.'”

But the excitement has been slow to turn into firm orders.

“Trade shows move fast bang bang bang,” says Jesch. “But theme parks move slow.”

Yet CHOPS already counts two theme park projects in the bag. One installation is under way at Mall of America near Minneapolis, where a toothsome Sharky talks parents and kids into the aquarium.

When a huge indoor recreation center opens near Salinas, Calif. this summer, its digital mascot Squeeze will josh and jive with the youth of the farmlands. Another $35,000 installation is in operation at a mall at Manila in the Philippines, which outfitted a virtual reef within a science center.

Now CHOPS is pitching its system to the San Diego Zoo, and is launching a television venture called “My Fish People” to teach kids about oceanography.

But the company’s future success is not assured.

“This is such a new and different thing for people,” Jesch allows. “There’s a curve to adoption of new technology. We’re in an early adopter phase in the business community.”

Roadblocks include fear of the new, he says. For end users, conversations with an image spark an emotional response one that depends more on their emotional state than on anything the character may do or say.

In the future, Jesch wants to eliminate the man behind the screen and associated payroll to develop a totally computerized response mechanism. His goal: “A virtual character capable of intelligence, humor, creativity and sensitivity to the audience.”

But dare he leave a digital character totally unsupervised?

“As a performer, I’ve learned what sends the conversation off on a wacko tangent,” Jesch says.

Two decades after cult MTV character “Max Headroom” introduced the digital character concept, Jesch says, “Right now we sit between video gaming and virtual reality a huge multi-billion dollar industry and a small cult.

“We believe live animation will rise up in video gaming and education in real time. The benefits are amazing. The challenge is how do we survive the early adoption phase.”