Live Animation on the Simpsons and Late Night With Stephen Colbert

simpsons live
Homer answering viewer questions live.

 If you happened to catch this past Sunday's episode of The Simpsons you were treated with Homer taking live calls on the air and answering viewer questions. It was a pretty neat little gimmick, and one that similarly has been popping up on Late Night with Stephen Colbert albeit with a different twist. So how did they do the live animation anyway?

By using the new and still developing Adobe Character Animator program in conjunction with Adobe After Effects, that's how. Character Animator allows you to create your character and animate it live using a video footage of your actor. You make your character and it's assets and then Character Animator will watch what you're doing and mimic that as best it can. 

How Live Animation Worked on The Simpsons

So how did The Simpsons use it for their segment? They didn't use it quite like it hypes itself, instead of having it watch Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer) for it's animation queues it simply listened to him. Character Animator listened to his voice and did a pretty good job of trying to lip sync along with what he was saying, although I noticed that he had to speak a little bit slower than usual for it to match up.

For the animation of Homer, they created a set of presets that could be triggered by David Silverman, a longtime director on the show. So when Homer blinks, turns his head, or raises his hand up that is because David Silverman has triggered that piece of canned animation. The other cast members walking on and off were done similarly, although those weren't controlled live: they were simply assigned when to go on.

So animating the characters elsewhere and bringing it into Character Animator allowed them to keep the right look and feel to match that of the rest of the show. Unlike on The Simpsons though, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has been using Adobe Character Animator in a much more out-of-the-box way.

Live Animation on Colbert

Their cartoon Trump bits use Adobe Character Animator's ability to watch a live performance and emulate the actor for the animation, as well as a few set keys to change position. You can see that in the Colbert clip the character is much more stretchy than he is in the Simpsons clip. That's because when Character Animator is going off a video it uses squash and stretch to simulate a lot of the animation. Somewhat similar to the Simpsons you can see they have a few poses assigned to their character, although they more switch to that pose than animate to that pose like the Simpsons did.

If you look also in the Colbert clip you can see the lip sync by Character Animator starting to fall apart when the voice actor is speaking quickly or shouting. It ends up just being the character's mouth open rather than smooth lip syncing.

The Simpsons' bit comes off somewhat more stiffly than the Colbert segments. Phone-in question and answers are always weird and kind of awkward, and the balance between handling that and handling the animation to me just didn't feel like it created a flow for the viewer to follow. I think the Colbert bits are much easier to take in as a viewer since there's more of a natural flow between the Trump character and Colbert, they can react to each other easier than the people on the phone.

Both segments however open show a neat new technique that allows for some really fun improvisation along with a more stylized presentation. The way that The Simpsons used it - drawing and animating their sequences outside of Animator and using it strictly for lip sync - might be the way to go to get rid of that floaty After Effects/computer-y feel that are noticeable in the Stephen Colbert bits.

Hopefully, Adobe Character Animator continues to improve and build upon what they have the ability to do now. It's a pretty neat way to do a very stylized form of improv comedy, one that we may be going to see more and more of, especially now that these two big-name shows have done it.