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Got 3D? Toronto's Head Gear Animation is leading the film industry in new directions

Men and women screaming, a car flipped, and a giant 10 year old child about to step on you. If that sounds familiar, you have likely seen the latest advertisement for milk, part of the first series of 3D advertisements in Canada.

Made by Toronto-based company Head Gear Animation, the spot packs a pretty punch -- a police siren wailing, rocks flying towards the audience, and possible death by a monster child -- all in five-seconds, the length of the commercial. It's over in a heartbeat, although its production pushed the creative limits of its makers, taking eight weeks, especially since Julian Grey and Steve Angel had to pioneer a new 3D animation technique.

Head Gear was founded in 1997 by Grey and Angel, to provide "smart visual solutions to sell a product or an idea," explains Grey. The pair met while working at another animation company, Toronto-based Cuppa Coffee Studios, but decided to branch out because they wanted more creative control. "We wanted to own it ourselves," he says, "rather than working for the man."

There are several different ways to create 3D, but essentially you can record live action with a 3D camera, or use computer software to record a virtual 3D world. Films like Avatar create a virtual world with Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI), which offers the creative freedom to create blue people who fly about on reptilian-looking creatures and dance badly.

It's not just James Cameron's imagination, but the technology itself is expensive, and so when producing 3D animation, you can expect to add about another 30 per cent to your budget, explains Dale Hayward, a freelance filmmaker who is currently creating a 3D film for the National Film Board of Canada, and has worked with Head Gear on TV commercials in the past. It costs more because you have double the amount of frames per second, he says. "There is more trial and error, and time is money."

To cut costs, Head Gear used two-dimensional images that were made to look stereoscopic by stacking them one on top of each other, like sets across a theatre. The sets were imported into a computer, and computer software added the 3D effect. The technique allowed them to create the 3D spot "for about half the price."  

The ground-breaking technique will likely help Toronto's growing 3D scene, with benefits beyond Head Gear, explains Hayward. "A lot of studios will try and piggy back and figure out what they've done."

It's a Canadian first, but not the first of the company's cutting-edge work. Head Gear were one of the first to mix live-action and stop-motion techniques (where objects are moved incrementally to give the illusion of continuous movement) early in the company's history for a Nickelodeon commercial. This mixture of styles has become a signature look, and its been appropriated by other directors in Canada and internationally, Hayward explains. "If you look around, you can see that the style they introduced is becoming increasingly common."
Indeed, you may have already seen Head Gear's work without realizing. The "Get a Load of Milk" campaign, with about 120 different commercials, each with their own narrative and characters, were all made by the animation company. So too were the commercials for cell-phone company Koodo where pink gingerbread men and woman dance around, kiss, and then join hands make the word "Textfinity," to advertise unlimited text messages.

The commercials share a quirky sense of humor, quick-pacing, lots of sound effects, and a "hand-made" aesthetic, which adds "distinct charm," explains Nick Fairhead, a Toronto-based freelance animator who has worked with Head Gear in the past. "They get into your head right away.  There isn't any fat."

Indeed, that sense of humor becomes apparent with a quick tour of the office, where large graphics computers sit among puppets, one-eyed aliens, papier-mache sailors, and old-fashioned typewriters painted electric blue. In a glass and wooden box, little figurines are having a meeting, with nametags such as the Hon. Little, Hon. McCracken and Hon. Grosbeak. You might have already guessed - the distinguished honourables aren't middle-aged men but yellow rubber chickens, and what gives them their unique charm is their very human expressions.

Nearby is an award display, where a row of glass shelves are packed with dozens of trophies. Stacked from floor to ceiling are 48 winner's trophies, from places such as MTV Canada, the New York Festivals International Television & Film Awards and the Broadcast Designer's Association. Across the lobby, another wall is crammed full of framed award certificates. Grey pokes fun at the multitude of trophies, pretending that they weren't won, but were produced in-house by the animation company. "We made all of those ourselves," he says of the statuettes and awards. "They look real don't they?"

The humor veils a sharp business-sense, for as stereoscopy explodes with more sports coverage and 3D TVs, Head Gear are positioning themselves as experts, Hayward explains. "They are really smart about this. Stereoscopy is right around the corner, especially with the FIFA World Cup this summer. You'll probably hear a lot more of Head Gear in the future, as they've done it first."

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