A creative dance


06-Aug-01 - Kirstie Stars as the Red Dress
(Connect section, News and Observer, August 6, 2001)

Published: Monday, August 6, 2001 4:32 a.m. EDT

A creative dance
Animation studio signs up to move the product


A paper cup capers with a swingy red dress in an ad to sell low-fat sandwiches to women.
Created by Serious Robots Animation of Raleigh


RALEIGH -- Some strange artifacts still reside in Jim Regan's purple cubicle.

A pristine, flattened bag of Baked Lays potato chips peeks out from under folders. A Simplicity pattern for a swingy summer dress is tucked away to the right of his flat panel display. On another machine, he can still pull up a QuickTime movie of Raleigh dance instructor Kirsten Tice twirling in her studio.

And tossed haphazardly to the side, a promotional photo depicting the dancing red dress getting down with a soda cup from the fast-food sandwich shop Subway.

After his six weeks of work on a nameless, invisible dress model and her silky, flowing frock, the handiwork of Regan and his colleagues at Raleigh animation studio Serious Robots Animation is airing on television in markets across the country -- just not in the Triangle.

It's a disappointment for the 36-year-old animator who would like to see the dancing dress in his living room, despite the hours spent staring at it at work. "It's fun to see your work on television," he says.

But a video tape at the office offers up the commercial in 30-second and 15-second versions. A sexy, red dress and a pair of pumps to match -- with no body -- shimmy across the screen. They dance first with a puffy bag of Baked Lays chips and then a fun-loving soda cup. The voice over, a woman, talks about looking good, feeling good and the virtues of Subway's low-fat menu.

It was a lively project for 10-year old Serious Robots. The eight-employee animation studio has also done work for Nortel, GlaxoSmithKline and UNC-TV. Their handiwork can be seen on "Sesame Street" (in a short to teach kids about the terms "open" and "closed") and promotional spots for The Cartoon Network.

Nancy Rich, creative director at Serious Robots, describes the genesis of the dress idea, which came to them from Subway's ad agency, Canadian American Advertising in Flint, Mich. At first they wanted to do dancing pants. More specifically, they wanted to do the dancing pants of Subway's weight-loss poster boy, Jared Fogel.

But the theme for a Subway sweepstakes, the ad's impetus, is "Get the Skinny," which, the great advertising minds decided, appeals more to women than men. Thus the dancing pants become a dancing dress, Serious Robots was given the $50,000 contract and Regan went to work.

"I had to learn about dress-making, really," Regan says, brandishing the dress pattern and showing how he fit the 3-D model on the screen of his 3-year-old Silicon Graphics workstation with a three-panel dress.

Regan used the popular 3-D animation software program, Alias Wavefront's Maya, which automates many visual effects including cloth rendering. While the software uses the laws of physics as they are applied to different types of cloth to make it visually convincing, it was up to Regan to tailor the dress and make the virtual fabric fit -- a week of mouse clicks taking it in where it pooched and letting out where it pulled.

Meanwhile, Serious Robots recruited Tice, who founded the North Carolina Dance Institute, to choreograph a dance for the dress and gave her a tape of a spliced version of Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca." The final version of the commercial features a similar tune. Regan and Tice then spent two hours in the dancer's studio working out the exact moves, Regan standing in for the cup and the chips bag.

Then he went back to the computer.

There are 30 frames in every second of video. Every frame requires the software to calculate the movement of the model and the reaction of the dress. It was a slow process to move the model into every position in Tice's dance, but the computer kept up, swirling the red fabric. Eventually it all ran to the beat.

Meanwhile, animator Scott Donley took on the task of getting a bag of chips and a soda cup to dance. By the first of June, they put it all together and shipped it off to the agency. Ten days later it showed up on national television in markets where local franchises participated in the sweepstakes -- sadly, not the Triangle.

Last week, Serious Robots hosted a happy hour to celebrate finishing the project. On the menu: Subway sandwiches.

Staff writer Christina Dyrness can be reached at 829-4649 or