August 23, 2012

By Graydon Gordian

Elmo’s Alphabet Challenge: The Story Behind the Animation

On Tuesday, August 14, Sesame Street released “Elmo’s Alphabet Challenge,” our latest home video. In it, Elmo, Abby and Telly get sucked into an animated video game world and have to defeat A.B.C.-more at a number of alphabet-based challenges in order to escape.

The challenges are all spoofs of iconic video games: Pac-man, Guitar Hero and Super Mario Brothers, among others, inspired the levels Elmo and his friends must traverse. The animation was created by Magnetic Dreams, an animation company Sesame Street has been working with for almost a decade.“Being animators we’re all fans of games,” said Mike Halsey, president of Magnetic Dreams. “Getting to do an animation that was based on the games we played growing up – a combination of animation, games and Sesame Street – you can’t beat that.”

John Hamm, who has been working in animation for over 15 years, directed the animation. Hamm explained to me how Magnetic Dreams goes about creating the animation. The first step in the process is to design the characters.

“We didn’t want them to look exactly like the puppets themselves,” he said. “We wanted them to look like they were in video games.” In each level, Elmo, Abby and Telly have a different look. For instance, in the Pac-Man spoof, Elmo looks like an 8-bit, two dimensional figure.

From there they designed the environments, storyboarded the animation and blocked the characters movements. The setting of the 7 video games being spoofed — Super Mario Brothers, Angry Birds, Pac-Man, Just Dance, Guitar Hero, Mario Kart and World of Warcraft – formed the basis for their designs.

Most of the sections of the story were designed like all the other animation they work on, but in one instance – the Just Dance spoof – Magnetic Dreams used motion capture technology to design the characters and craft their dance moves. “Elmo’s Alphabet Challenge” is the first project on which Magnetic Dreams used its motion capture technology.

“The Just Dance game, from the animator’s standpoint, is very clearly a motion capture game,” said Halsey. “We weren’t sure whether we could get someone in a suit to pull of Elmo dancing, so we got a highly trained dancer. We got one of the animators in the suit to play the less graceful C-more. Their positions are exaggerated. Cartoons don’t move exactly like real people.”

You can get a copy of “Elmo’s Alphabet Challenge” and see all of the wonderful animation the Magnetic Dreams team created for Sesame Street at Sesame Street’s online store.

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