of Ninja

Ben Franklin is
dancing up a cyclone.

I mean he is kickin’—grinding, bumping, push-pull-pushing, vogueing to some high-octane funk by Basement Jaxx—Let it all out, doin’ my thang/Boom-boom-boom and a-bang-bang-bang—big feet slip-sliding along a multi-colored disco dance floor He’s a wonderfully grotesque caricature of Penn’s founder, this big-butted, blue-waistcoated 3-D groove-master with the studiously cool expression behind his bifocals. I can’t stop watching him—and it’s not as if I lack for images of Franklin in this part of the world.

Dancing Ben is one of many upstart creations of Penn’s Digital Media Design (DMD) program, an undergraduate major that fuses computer science with fine arts and communication theory. It’s a sort of high-tech, discipline-hopping marriage of science and art, theory and practice, and as I watch Dancing Ben move I half-expect him to start spouting some jive hip-hop version of “all things useful, all things ornamental.”

“Franklin would have loved DMD,” says Amy Calhoun C’82, the program’s high-revving associate director. “It’s everything that I think he was talking about, as far as taking all of this technology and this understanding of cognitive science and perception and how the brain works—and putting it into something tangible that people can use.

“What differentiates DMD students from students who have gone to art school,” she adds, “is that they not only understand how to make an appealing image, but they know how to make the computer do what they need it to do.”

Consider what Dancing Ben’s creator, Salim Zayat EAS’01, had to do to get him up and boogying. First, after poring over countless portraits of Franklin, Zayat created his own “overly rotund” image, using old-fashioned pencil and paper. (“All my character designs have an element of cartoon to them,” he says. “It’s just the way I see the world.”) After scanning the drawings into Adobe Photoshop and saving the images, he made the 3-D models using Alias-Wavefront’s Maya software. For the textures he drew on Photoshop, and to speed up the coloring process he used a Wacom digital-painting tablet.

At that point, he needed a movement model, so he enlisted a DMD student named Matt Leiker EAS’05—despite the fact that Leiker “could not have been more than 120 pounds soaking wet.” But he could flat-out dance, so Zayat brought him into the LiveActor virtual-reality facility in the Moore building (just up the hall from the ENIAC Museum), dressed him in a sensor-studded Lycra spandex suit, and recorded his funky dancing on the motion-capture system. He then mapped the dance-movement data to the Ben Franklin model, using a software program called Filmbox (now Mocap). That turned out to be even harder than it sounds, thanks to Ben’s highly exaggerated proportions.

“Unfortunately, the discrepancies in body type [between Dancing Ben and Dancing Matt] caused a lot of what we call ‘interpenetration,’” recalls Zayat. That, he explains, “is when body parts go through each other.”

Getting all the body parts to behave took many hours of cleanup work at the computer. But the final result is a poetry-slam in motion.

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

FEATURE: The Cult of DMD
By Samuel Hughes



Left: Salim Zayat’s
Dancing Ben gets
down tonight.