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Posts by Starling

Interview with comedian Rodney Ramsey: Using Flipside Studio to create a virtual comedy club

- by Starling


“This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, like I’m a live cartoon right now . . . You have to understand how weird it is that I’ve done more stand-up as an avatar than as a real person [in the last year].”

Rodney Ramsey has been doing comedy for 20 years —touring, comedy clubs, festivals. All of those things went away when COVID-19 arrived. Comedians had to take their acts to the virtual space, with most either doing Zoom shows or TikTok videos. Rodney wanted to take a different approach to bring that live/televised comedy show vibe back into the mix, and as someone with VR and production skills, he knew Flipside Studio was the vehicle to do it.

We chatted with Rodney about how hosting comedy in VR has taken his career to new places, making him busier than ever before.

1. Tell me about yourself.

“I was always kind of the class clown and during college, I was bored. Then I did stand-up and it was like, wow, I've never had that much fun. That was it for me,” says Rodney. He started out in Montreal, and after exploring other cities while touring, decided to stay there to build his career.

“All the artists in my industry, they either go to New York or L.A.” Rodney says.  “I'm in this weird, cool artistic thing where everything is supposed to be creative, yet everybody does it the exact same way, which never made any sense. So I said, ‘I'm going to see if I can do this from Montreal.’ And it's been going great.”

Rodney has always taken an experimental approach to comedy, creating different productions to see what lands with his audience. His first production was called The Drunken Show where both the performers and the audience would get drunk (and maybe a little high) and just see what would happen. 

“We still do it, it’s insane.”

He normally averaged around five productions a year before, but since using Flipside Studio and taking his shows into the virtual space, he’s accelerated his production level to the point where he’s done 60 shows this year already.

2. What are your biggest challenges with mo-cap animation? 

“It took me a while to get here, you know what I mean? It's not easy. You really got to either have the knowledge or really want it.” 

Incorporating real-time VR mocap animation into Rodney’s act didn’t happen overnight. Luckily, being a stand-up comedian developed a lot of the skills he needed for production. 

“Stand-up means that you have the tools to do a bunch of things . . . it means you can write, so I write. It means you can act, so I act. It means you can direct, so I try to direct stuff. And you're always editing.”

Those skills, combined with a love for tech, specifically VR, and the COVID lockdown situation led him to create The Unknown Comedy Club with co-founder Daniel Woodrow.

3. How do you use Flipside Studio for real-time VR mocap animation? What made you choose Flipside Studio over other mocap animation options?

“What makes this thing special is the production value . . . people need to feel like it’s television.” 

Rodney hosts The Unknown Comedy Club shows as a cartoon avatar and delivers his stand-up while operating the camera in real time.

“The cartoon looks good. It's super solid. And then I'm like switching cameras real time while telling jokes, man. I'm also morphing into different characters.” 

Rodney is always surprised how quickly people get comfortable with the avatar and don’t even question it.

“I will be sitting at my desk [as an avatar] and I'll pick up coffee and start drinking the coffee. Nobody says anything ever, until I point it out. They're there with you, you know?”

Being into tech, Rodney had the idea to merge VR and stand-up comedy and tried several apps before discovering Flipside. What made Flipside Studio work for him was the real-time mocap animation capabilities, along with the integration with Zoom. It’s now gotten to the point where some people come to the shows just for the avatar.

“They're coming to see the avatars, you know what I mean? They're like, yo, this guy over here, he's doing a show on the moon. There's a supernova happening in the back. You know, it ties it to the punch line. It's crazy.”

Although most of the other comedians performing during the show aren’t performing as avatars—they perform in front of a green screen so Rodney is able to match the backgrounds, the whole production feels a lot more like watching live television than watching a standard Zoom call. 

Doing stand-up comedy using VR mocap animation has made Rodney’s brand of comedy into a niche he occupies with very little competition, but his goal is to bring more comedians into VR.

“I'm looking at it like the avatar show. That's all I want. I want to be able to have a bunch of people do it. If I can collab with a bunch of people who are avatars from wherever they are, that is insane to me.”

4. How does Flipside Studio help you make money?

“We did our first show in January and then we're like, oh my God, that was amazing. The comics were happy. We were happy. The crowd is happy. And when I'm in there, I feel like I'm on stage. I feel like I'm performing in front of a crowd, even though they're in Zoom boxes, like I'm on my stage. I have them in front of me—boom, showtime.”

The next week they did another show, and so on, until they had the hang of the format and wanted to do more with it. Rodney and his co-creator Daniel Woodrow had been doing a comedy tour called the Underground Comedy Railroad, an all black comedy tour, for the last nine years. It had always been in person before, but if they were going to do it this year it would have to be virtual. They had three weeks to pull it together.

“We did a five show tour with Flipside. This is like a huge thing for us because before that we weren’t a club . . . We made more money that weekend, virtually, than we had in the nine years that we've been doing the show, leaving our house.”

With all the comedy clubs shut down during the pandemic, The Unknown Comedy Club has been a way to keep the shows going and not only get paid, but also pay other comedians as well, and Just for Laughs took notice. Rodney is performing more shows at the internationally acclaimed comedy festival this year than ever before.

“Flipside plus Zoom plus a few other things, you know what I mean. Like yeah. Magic.”

5. What have you made using Flipside Studio? Where can we find it online?

Find out when the next Unknown Comedy Club show happens and get your tickets!

Catch Rodney’s act at Just for Laughs and watch out for Rodney's JFL Originals comedy album to be released this fall.

Want to start making your own mocap animation? Click here to learn more about Flipside Studio.

 

How Flipside Studio Opens Up New Possibilities for Creators

- by Starling

“People saw that video and they were like, this is amazing. This is entertaining. How did you do this? That's the reaction I got. So it really was a game-changer,” says Elli Raynai, co-creator of Nourish, a lens used for Snapchat’s most recent Lens Fest. 

Elli discovered Flipside Studio after an assignment to create an educational piece on how to make a decision. As a creator, he wanted it to be fun, engaging and meet his creative standards. After a positive experience and amazing feedback, he jumped on the opportunity to use Flipside Studio again, this time creating a lens for Snapchat with his partner Irem Harnak. 

We had a chat with the two Toronto-based creatives to talk about using mocap animation to create Nourish, overcoming challenges with new projects, and exploring how Flipside’s tools open up new possibilities. “We don't have to limit ourselves. It's really eye-opening, and it's really creative,” adds Irem Harnak, Nourish co-creator. 

1. Tell me about yourself.

“I got into interaction design by creating a VR experience and interactive VR experiences in 2018. I worked on it together with Elli...It was a great experience,” says Irem. 

With backgrounds in photography and filmmaking, Irem and Elli both have a passion for interactive projects.

“In 2014 I moved over into more interactive projects when I discovered VR, more specifically the Oculus Rift, and I decided to make a movie using that technology in particular,” says Elli. “It was a really, really successful project... From there, we kept making more and more VR projects.” 

The duo worked together on interactive VR installation called Made This Way: Redefining Masculinity, a VR project born out of a photo series about masculinity and transgender men that premiered internationally at the 75th Venice International Film Festival in September 2018.

“From that, I started working on different mobile, web and XR projects,” Irem says.

Elli completed an AR residency at Snapchat, where the idea for Nourish, a lens to help people stay fit and motivated, sprouted. He teamed up with Irem once again to combine machine learning, motion capture, 3D and interaction design to help fulfill the vision for the lens, using Flipside Studio.

“When the opportunity came up for doing a lens at Snapchat through the AR residency, I thought, you know, can we use the tool again?” said Elli. “Would this be a great tool to use to get our animations working in Snap?”

2. What are your biggest challenges with mo-cap animation? 

Irem has used other motion capture tools in the past, but found them quite difficult. 

“You have to make sure all the cameras are functioning. Then there are two softwares you're juggling with, the actor needs to be completely there, and you have to do the warm-up exercises,” she explains. ”Then you have to make sure all the markers are positioned properly. Sometimes it doesn't work and then they have to leave the room. So, it was a lot of back and forth.”

In building Nourish, Irem created animations with motion capture where she had to figure out a way for characters to appear, stay there, and then exit the scene. Her biggest challenge was the learning curve in using Tween Manager in Lens Studio and attaching everything with behaviour scripts. 

“Your team helped us by creating a Python script for Blender,” said Elli. “Once we had exported the motion capture data and applied it to the model, it was just a matter of exporting the fbx and then bringing it into Snap Lens Studio.”

Irem explained that due to time constraints, limits with the lockdown, and their limited animation experience, Flipside Studio solved a lot of their obstacles.

“I found Flipside was just so fast,” Irem said. “Even just to get in and then just capture it and then take the stuff out. Just to look at it was quite good compared to what I've seen before.”

3. How do you use Flipside Studio for VR mocap? What made you choose Flipside Studio over other mocap animation options?

Irem was tasked with 3D modeling the characters, but she wasn’t sure where to start.  

“Since Elli already worked with Flipside, we were like, we should really do this because we can have our own custom animations,” says Irem.

They contacted Flipside and worked with our artist to go through the rigging process. Once they had their models, they created short animations for each character. 

“We got really close and personal with the characters,” says Irem. ”So we tried to imagine how they would walk...Elli jumped into VR and I was kind of guiding him, directing him, telling him, OK, go this way, move that way. We captured really short clips and then we brought them into the software to see how it's reacting.” 

It was important that each custom character had their own dance, fun movements and energy.  

“Animation gives life to the characters, says Irem. “And we really did it just playing in this little room.”

“I think that the speed that you can prototype, how you can get ideas across with tools like Flipside are like night and day,” says Elli. 

4. How does Flipside Studio make mocap easier?

“It opens up possibilities for us. Even though we don't know how to do things, that doesn't stop us from doing things. But feeling like there is a tool that empowers us to go ahead, and whatever we think about, whatever characters we want to animate, we can animate,” says Elli. “The sky's the limit in terms of what kind of projects we can work on.”

Elli and Irem were able to create their project in their small home studio. Flipside Studio gave them an affordable option to create unique characters that they couldn’t have accomplished themselves. 

“We wanted to put our own spin, our own style, our own imprint on these characters,” says Elli. “And we would have never been able to do that without Flipside.”

The two agreed that having to use very little equipment made things a lot easier for them. 

“It made us feel very empowered that we could with very little equipment, you know, a headset and computer, we were able to do something that was impossible,” said Elli. “I think that's what was impressive with Flipside. You get speed, and you get quality at a fraction of the cost.” 

5. What have you made using Flipside Studio? Where can we find it online?

Elli’s thought piece on how to make a decision can be found here.

Learn more about Irem and Elli’s Snapchat lens, Nourish, on YouTube. 

Find out more about Elli and Irem.

Want to start making your own mocap animation? Click here to learn more about Flipside Studio.

 

Interview with Alex Albrecht of Caffeine.tv: How Flipside Studio Powers Remote Real-Time Mocap Animation

- by Starling

“When you're doing this mocap stuff live, there's just nothing like having a character seeing the other character in real time . . . picking up a prop and making a joke or throwing something because you're angry. You just can't do this stuff outside of the software that you guys built, outside this mocap concept of animation,” says Alex Albrecht, Head of Caffeine Productions. “I don't know how we go back into a studio and not bring Flipside with us.”

We’ve been following Alex since Diggnation, a weekly video podcast he hosted with Kevin Rose that ran for 7.5 years. Lately, Alex and his team at Caffeine.tv have been using Flipside Studio to produce two animated shows: Live From the 8th Dimension and The Dungeon Run. We sat down with Alex to discuss his love for all things VR, motion capture, and how his team creates animated shows remotely using Flipside Studio.

1. Tell me about yourself.

“I came out here as a computer science guy,” says Alex. His career in the entertainment industry started in the early 2000s. With a computer science degree and a passion for improv comedy, he moved to L.A. and took a job at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank.

Alex spent a lot of time watching TechTV, and was particularly intrigued by an hour-long daily tech show called The Screen Savers. After meeting a producer from TechTV at a wedding and learning his favourite show was holding co-host auditions, Alex jumped at the opportunity.

“I have an improv background and a computer science degree. Where do I sign?”

Three weeks later he was co-hosting The Screen Savers with Kevin Rose, which led them to create Digg.com and the video podcast Diggnation. From there he created, produced, and hosted content for the Revision3 network, and went on to direct and produce several feature films and commercials.

When his friend started Caffeine.tv, a live social experience app, Alex joined as an advisor, and eventually came on full time to manage original productions. Now he’s the head of production at Caffeine and oversees everything the network produces in house, including the production of two shows with the help of Flipside Studio.

2. What are your biggest challenges with mo-cap animation? 

“I always knew that this technology could really get rid of the barrier to entry for animation and for mocap specifically,” says Alex about his first experiences with Flipside Studio. “Because it’s based on a game engine you can literally do anything you want. If you can imagine it, you can do it.”

His biggest challenge was convincing people it was possible to create an hour of content for a weekly animated show. It hadn’t been done before.

“Twenty-two minutes is basically the most anybody makes of animated content. And they take months and months and months to generate that. And here we are going—no we're gonna do an hour and we're gonna do it every week.”

They set up the VR equipment and started to experiment. One night while Alex was away, the team put on the VR headsets, chose their characters, and hit record.

“I watched it and I was like, this is amazing. This is hysterical. It clearly was improvised. It was clearly just three people punchy at work. But it was undeniably engaging.”

From there, Alex’s team at Caffeine created Live from the 8th Dimension, which had a 46-episode run. They used Flipside Studio for every aspect of the show, and became a sort of “power beta tester” putting the software through its paces and pushing it to where it is today.

“We did everything that it was designed for. At every split second of the day. There was no feature that we weren't using extensively,” says Alex.

3. How do you use Flipside Studio for VR mocap? What made you choose Flipside Studio over other mocap animation options?

Years before he learned about Flipside Studio, Alex had a moment while playing Star Trek Bridge Commander, a VR game where you could embody a Star Trek Character on a ship. 

He was catching up with one of the other players before everyone else arrived. His friend, as a Vulcan science officer, was telling him about meeting a girl at a bar. “But I'm seeing a Vulcan science officer in a Star Trek-like conference room, and he's like hanging his head in his hands . . .  It was hysterical. Like, that was a piece of content I would consume.” 

Alex was also learning about Machinima, the concept of using real-time game engines to create cinematic productions, but found the process too complicated.

“But then when Flipside came along and I was like, oh, I get it. It's Machinima. It's Star Trek Bridge Commander. But it also gives us all these production tools that we can understand because we know how production works. It just all came together . . . it was the one tool that really did everything.”

4. How does Flipside Studio make mocap easier?

One of Caffeine’s Flagship Shows is The Dungeon Run, a weekly live RPG tabletop narrative experience. The show featured five players sitting together around a table on a massive set with an animatronic puppet as the host. The production design team built elaborate Dungeons & Dragons models, and they had multiple cameras and a jib capturing the action. 

When COVID hit in spring 2020, they had to find a way to create the show without having everyone in the same physical space. After some testing, they landed on a concept that has the players on screen on video chat, with the digital map on a virtual table in Flipside Studio. The miniatures are animated and can move in real time.

“That concept has evolved into some of the most amazing Dungeons & Dragons playing that has ever been put to tape . . . it's better than what we do in the studio,” Alex says. “I don't know how we go back into a studio and not bring Flipside with us.”

5. What have you made using Flipside Studio? Where can we find it online?

All 46 episodes of Live From the 8th Dimension are available on YouTube

The Dungeon Run streams live every Wednesday at 6pm PT https://www.caffeine.tv/thedungeonrun. Watch old episodes here and see how the production has changed with the times.

To learn more about Alex and Caffeine.tv, check out their website.


Want to start making your own mocap animation? Click here to learn more about Flipside Studio.

Watch our unedited interview with Alex below: