Articles >

The Winston Show Offers A New Type Of App

Winston waits to interact wtih the user on the new interactive app “The Winston Show”

Toy Talk

As an animator at Pixar, Jon Collins worked on some of the company’s most notable properties, including “Wall-E”, “Up,” and “Toy Story 3.”   He left that world just as he became comfortable, eager to try his hand at a different type of animation:  video game animatics. He was working as the lead animator at Blizzard Entertainment when he received a call that would once again change his course.

“I was given a pitch about starting something brand new, and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck,” said Collins.  “This idea was to create a 3D character capable of real time interaction.  As an animator, how would we do that? How do we shape that kind of workflow and process?  It was too good to pass up.”

Collins joined former Pixar alums Oren Jacob and Martin Reddy at their co-founded venture, ToyTalk.  The goal of ToyTalk, a family entertainment company, is to “create content through characters and conversations.”  Their first offering is an iPad app called “The Winston Show.”   “The Winston Show” is the first mobile platform where its characters listen to the user, and respond to their questions or comments using artificial intelligence and speech recognition.  To effectively create this app, a new brand of technology had to be developed that would allow the character to lip sync thousands of lines of dialogue in response to what the users ask.   Animators working on “The Winston Show” would mix standard applications with programming skills to execute the technology.  Prior to this step, however, Collins and his team had to develop the look of the character.

Before creating the character’s design, Collins and his team had to take into account some technical limitations.  While constantly evolving, the iPad has limited compositing power compared to film or video games, so creating a “low poly model” was important to avoid the viewer’s discovery of the polygons that make up the surface of an animated figure (these can be read as straight lines under intense scrutiny.) The design also had to be simple enough to create understandable body language, poses, and improvised facial gestures when in conversation.  Once the technical aspects were taken into account, Winston’s appearance was born.

“We didn’t want him to look human in order to wake up the child’s creativity,” said Collins.  “Yellow is a warm, inviting, upbeat and energetic color.   The tufts of hair add life and vibrancy.  His eyes are flat, married to the design of the iPad itself.   Winston has a hand-drawn sense of beauty; it’s a tribute to old cartoons.”

In addition to engaging the viewer, Winston has a sidekick named Ellington to lighten the mood and provide levity to the app.  Ellington is a small, round, orange character with eyes that mirror Winston’s, however he resorts to jibberish and gestures, allowing Winston an opportunity to fully engage the user.  Both characters are created using 3D models.  Most of the backgrounds involved in “The Winston Show” are 2D, allowing the characters to pop on the screen.  The user has the opportunity to play trivia games, enter a costume department to play dress up, and sit with Winston in a “Reading Room.”  All backgrounds allow the animators to mix 2D with 3D sets, providing constant refreshment for users and animators alike.  The animation is created through a mixture of familiar programs including Maya, and ToyTalk’s proprietary software such as Pullstring, where the assembling of the app is completed.

In addition to gaining a background in programming language, working in a smaller group was a large adjustment for Collins.

“It’s a lot different.  I’m used to being part of a large team; there may be 50-70 animators working on the same film. You’re working in your own realm, and not involved in story development,” said Collins.  “Working with (ToyTalk), there is more connectivity, more interactivty.  Everyone gets better ideas by sharing with the group.”

While “The Winston Show” launched in September, the development of the app is far from over.  As children interact with the app, their recordings are shared in cloud-based technology, allowing the ToyTalk team to constantly update and improve the app as well as ad games and challenges.  As the iPhone technology continues to evolve, the animation will also be adjusted to maximize the technology’s advancements.  What inspires Collins is the fact that, although the app is launched, the project is far from over.

“We created three times the content in three months with three animators than normally done on a feature,” said Collins.  “We are not done, there is more content to create.   In two to three months, we’ll go back and create more.”

To learn more about “The Winston Show,” please visit: