Tuesday, February 6, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, February 6, 2001

Show breathes life into stuffed Pooh

Associated Press

A daily smackeral of sweetness and charm: That, in Pooh-speak, sums up "The Book of Pooh."

The Book of Pooh’

4:30, 7 and 9:30 a.m.


Disney Channel

A brand-new showcase for the storied cuddle toy, this live-action series is as lovable as its hero, as lush and inviting as the Hundred Acre Wood.

Each half-hour tells two tales about the honey-loving bear and his friends.

Maybe Pooh receives a note inviting him to lunch, signed just "Me." Maybe errand-crazy Rabbit thinks he lost a workday after Pooh, meaning to help, crosses out an extra square on Rabbit’s calendar. Maybe Eeyore arrives at a party only to mutter mulishly, "Hope we don’t play Pin the Tail on the Donkey.’"

Absent from Pooh Corner is a certain mother and child — Kanga and Roo — but you’ll find Piglet, Owl, that mopish donkey Eeyore, the frolicsome Tigger and brand-new character Kessie, a free-spirited bluebird.

Meanwhile, behind "Pooh’s" storybook-come-to-life luster is high-tech handiwork that would wow even Eeyore.

This video frame shows puppeteers, right, manipulating Pooh and other characters in the new TV series "The Book of Pooh."

TV image via Associated Press

This marriage of 18th-century puppetry and 21st-century cyberspace will stir wonder beyond its target audience of youngsters. Adults who sneak a peek at the screen should be no less spellbound: What is hold-in-your-hand real? What resides only in a computer? Just try to tell.

The magic is conjured at a squat, windowless building in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. On this far-from-pastoral sound stage, the only green in sight is blanketing a wall and a portion of the studio floor. Facing this green swath, a camera floats on a zero-gravity crane.

"It’s like a giant animation stage," said creator-executive producer Mitchell Kriegman. "The show is one long special effect."

Before him stands a gaggle of puppeteers in green body suits — it takes as many as four to operate one puppet — who carry out their artistry with rods affixed to different parts of each figure.

In this video version of the Japanese puppet technique called bunraku, the green-garbed puppeteers and their matching background are zapped from the picture, replaced by a computer-generated Hundred Acre Wood.

Here is where the whiz-bang innovation comes in. Kriegman calls it "real-time virtual compositing." This means the studio camera is rigged with orienting sensors linked to Pooh’s virtual world. Whichever way the camera moves — in, out, up, around — the computer’s virtual setting moves correspondingly.

Explains Kriegman, "We’re able to place the puppets in a virtual environment and let the puppeteers perform it in real time, while we use the camera in a completely intuitive way as if it’s in the virtual environment, too."

Which may not entirely make sense, but, considering the finished product, is nothing to pooh-pooh.

One other cool thing: To give themselves maximum flexibility, the producers mix-and-match real and virtual props. That is, for every physical object stored over in the corner of the studio (a tree stump, a bed, Pooh’s "hunny" pots), there’s an identical counterpart stored somewhere on a hard drive. There are even puppet honeybees and computer-byte bees.

Real? Virtual? Just try to tell the difference.

"We’ve needed a technical breakthrough practically every two weeks to do this show," said Kriegman proudly. But the point of all this pixel razzmatazz isn’t to impress computer geeks.

"I wanted to find a way to make Pooh more Pooh."

Although Winnie the Pooh has contentedly inhabited the A.A. Milne-authored books for 75 years as well as the Disney animated cartoons, Kriegman wasn’t satisfied.

He wanted what everyone who loves Pooh dreams about: to breathe life into the little stuffed toy.

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