Re-visiting Waldo

Henson and PDI’s motion captured CG character.

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Jim Henson was and is known, of course, for his incredible artistry with puppets. But he and his studio had also been investigating how puppetry techniques could be used to craft computer generated characters. That vision culminated in the Waldo C. Graphic character, a joint 1988 effort between Jim Henson Creature Shop and Pacific Data Images, based on designs by Kirk Thatcher.

Waldo, which made an appearance in the TV show The Jim Henson Hour, was made possible by combining a custom 8 DOF input device which was like a mechanical arm allowing for upper and lower jaw movements (via the hand of a puppeteer). The puppeteer could, through sensors attached to the device, control a CG character in real-time. Mixed with a video feed, the CG character was composited into live-action.


PDI also developed a light-weight plastic upper-body exoskeleton that tracked the movements of the upper torso, head, and arms, so that actors could control computer characters by miming their motions. Potentiometers on the plastic frame measure body motion, and these enabled the movements to be rendered in real-time.

You can see more about it in the video above, and read more in this Henson blog post. Further development of the system became known as the Henson Digital Performance System or HDPS, which ultimately received an Academy Award for Technical Achievement.

Of course, Waldo C. Graphic wasn’t the first character brought to life this way – deGraf/Wahrman had developed ‘Mike the Talking Head’ using a puppet controller, and there were marionette systems devised before, and after, too. Perhaps one of the most famous is the Digital Input Device developed to aid in animating some of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

Be great to see a come-back of this kind of tech somehow…

Follow along during this special weekly series, #mocaphistory, to re-visit motion capture history and hear from several performance capture professionals.

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