Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Puppet Pals - Interview with Polished Play

Stop motion animation can be a lot of fun; there’s always something magical about seeing inanimate objects move seemingly by themselves. But there’s one major inherent problem with this creative endeavour: it’s a painfully slow process - assuming you work in PAL, you must move your objects and characters a little bit at a time, recording the process twenty-five time just to produce one second of video. The results are often worth it, of course, but it’s definitely an exercise in patience. This is where Lance Harris and Heber Sheffield, the founders of Polished Play come in; they created a set of apps for iPad to turn this process upside down and enable anyone to create animated scenes in minutes, rather than days.

Meet Lance and Heber...
Such an idea wasn't dreamt up overnight though: "Heber and I have been friends since High School,” explains Lance Harris, the apps' designer. "In school, we would often team up and try to do unique video book reports, historical reports, etc. We would make stop frame claymation films and such. This was in the late 90’s and the tools we had to use we pretty rudimentary and clunky (there were no digital cameras yet). Imagine pressing record and stop quickly on a video recorder and hoping that the tape advanced a somewhat uniform distance, then moving the clay actors slightly and then repeating that process for hours on end. After video capture, we would get a tangle of wires into a VCR with a microphone and try and dub in the audio while transferring the tape over."

Puppet Pals 1 - Animated Cardboard Cutouts
"That is a long time ago to think about the origins of our apps,” he continues, "but really this is what started the cogs turning. I would end up going into film and graphics and Heber would go on to computer programming. Fast forward to the iPhone release and the unveiling of the App Store, and we would eventually meet up with the idea to create the tools that we always wanted during our school years: real-time animation. Simple, intuitive and fast.”

If you’ve ever played with cardboard cutouts, you’ll feel totally at home with Puppet Pals. You get to choose up to eight characters from a vast array of different genres, and up to five sets (most are available as separate in-app purchases, unless you opt for the Puppet Palls HD Director’s Pass version, where everything is included in the price of admission).

Set the scene and have your other characters ready to come on...
Swapping locations it just a matter of pulling on a chord, top right of the screen, and the new scenery drops down in front of the current one.

The scene takes up most of the screen, leaving enough space on either side for "wings", just like in a theatre, where the characters wait, unseen by the audience, until it's their cue to come on.

With the app being fully multi-touch aware, you can move numerous puppets at the same time, and you may find it convenient to have a few friends handy to handle some for you, since you may not have enough digits to do the app justice. Make sure you disable multi-touch gestures in the iPad's Settings, as having more than four fingers on the screen will most likely trigger iOS's app switcher function, ruining your show in the process.

The whole interface has a vaudeville, Punch and Judy, or commedia dell'arte feel to it. And in fact, recording the action is very much like doing a live performance. You can pause the recording, but that's the only control you have. As they say in the industry, if a mistake happens during the performance, the show must go on.

Puppet Pals 2: migrating from cutouts to marionettes...
The idea behind Puppet Pals 2: All Access is essentially the same, except that the execution is remarkably different and vastly superior. Gone are the cardboard cutouts, replaced by fully controllable marionettes: you can move their limbs individually, they walk as you drag them along, and you can even make them ride an animal or drive a vehicle. When not being controlled by you, the puppets even breathe, blink and move slightly to reinforce the illusion that they're alive. They also get smaller or bigger depending on whether they're heading deeper into the background or not. Those backdrops aren't fixed either but are full 360-degrees panoramic images which you can travel along by dragging the character left or right, making it easy to encounter new puppets in different places along the same backdrop, if you plan it all before hitting the record button.

Puppet Pals 2 lets you choose from over 40 marionettes
What's even more exciting is the ability to make your puppets talk. You could already record voices in Puppet Pals 1 by making use of your iPad's built-in microphone, or even better, by connecting a third-party mic to it to get a much higher quality recording with minimal ambient sound capture, but with Puppet Pals 2, hold a character, start talking, and, just like a ventriloquist's dummy, their mouth will open and close to match the cadence of your speech. It's a lot of fun to play with.

Each backdrop comes with its own specific musical score. You can also override the default selection and choose between twenty seven different ones, which will be overlaid on top of your project once you've finished recording it. There's also the option not to include any music at all.

This being a newer app, there aren't as many characters (forty three at last count) or backdrops (nine) compared to the original Puppet Pals, and you can't add custom backgrounds - you're limited to what the app has to offer, although this is something Lance admits may come very soon, along with around twenty additional puppets to play with.

But you don't need to wait for more characters if the ones you wish to use aren't yet available: just insert your own, in either version. As Puppet Pals works with cardboard cutouts, should you wish to use a photo of yourself - or anyone else for that matter - you'll have to work with a full length image. You will then be able to cut out the background by tracing your finger around the outline, and presto, one new unique character to add to your project.

Mark Twain in a tutu, on a giraffe... in space!
Puppet Pals 2: All Access takes a different approach: all you need is a head, which you can add onto any of the costumes already available in the app; this also means that you can mix and match the existing characters to create new, potentially quirky ones. As Lance says: "the good thing about having a wide variety of characters is that even if you use your own custom head, you have a large selection of body / clothing styles. The first time that we could joust in low gravity space, with ballerina Mark Twain on a giraffe vs a Knight on a zebra, I just knew we had created something special. That had us in stitches of juvenile delight."

Unfortunately, there's no way to resize the custom cutouts or heads, and they can often look bigger than they should compared to the other characters. Being able to alter those custom puppets' dimensions is something that's being looked into and could be part of a possible future update.

Use your head: create your own puppets
But despite all these much improved features, recording a project is again done live in Puppet Pals 2, with no option to edit, trim or otherwise manipulate the footage in any way. "We wanted to focus on a great live recording user experience so we don’t have any serious editing capabilities included," admits Lance. "We defer to more dedicated editing apps like iMovie for now. If a user wants to make a long production, we suggest making small scenes and saving them as clips. Export these clips to video and in iMovie you can do some intensive editing, with cuts, music, voiceover, text, titles etc.. That being said, we do want to eventually provide some basic clip cutting, combining, etc.. to make things easier to do all within the app."

Hanging out in Egypt with Albert and my clone...
Each app is different enough to cater to different needs. Puppet Pals 2 offers amazing fully controllable marionettes, vehicles and a handful of panoramic backdrops, but as a result could end up being more fiddly to use, whereas Puppet Pals 1 has a wealth of characters and backdrops, but suffers from being just about moveable cardboard cutouts over static images.

Unsurprisingly, both apps are doing well in education environments, and Puppet Pals 2 even has a handy teacher's guide to help educators get the most out of the app and their pupils.

Each apps has a free companion version with a limited number of characters and backdrops so you can check for yourself which one works best for you, but if you're in the market for a little puppet recording studio you can take with you anywhere, one of those is sure to suit your needs. They're fun and easy to use, just don't expect an editing studio to come along for the ride - at least not yet.

And this isn't the end of the road for these developers either: "We do have some exciting new features planned that we think will make Puppet Pals more interactive, powerful and fun," reveals Lance. "I don’t want to over promise anything as it often takes longer than anticipated to develop certain features. That said, we do continue to see a bright future of updates and exciting new possibilities! Stay tuned for more to come!"


Puppet Pals HD Director's Pass

Version Reviewed: 1.8.9

Price: £2.49 ($3.99)

Size: 86.1MB

Rated: 4+

Compatibility: Requires iOS 6.1 or later. Compatible with iPad.

Tested on: 3rd generation iPad running iOS 7.1.1

Puppet Pals 2: All Access

Version Reviewed: 1.3.3

Price: £2.99 ($4.99)

Size: 231MB

Rated: 4+

Compatibility: Requires iOS 6.1 or later. Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. This app is optimized for iPhone 5.

Tested on: 3rd generation iPad running iOS 7.1.1

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