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Priest River animator finds dream gig

Rod Stafford, founder of FacePro animation studio in Priest River sings along with the home version of American Idol. The company just completed work on the facial animation for the latest American Idol video game.  (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Rod Stafford, founder of FacePro animation studio in Priest River sings along with the home version of American Idol. The company just completed work on the facial animation for the latest American Idol video game. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
When people playing the new “American Idol” video game select the character “Doug” and have him sing “Imagine” by John Lennon in the “Dive Bar” venue, they probably don’t realize the character’s facial expressions and lip synching come from a computer animation studio overlooking a scenic stretch of Priest River in North Idaho. In fact, the facial animation for all the characters, performing all 40 songs, were completed by FacePro, a two-year-old company run by Rod Stafford, a veteran animator with two decades in the business. That means that as the characters prance around, dancing and singing, the movements made by their mouths, eyes, cheeks and noses came from Stafford’s company, based in Priest River. Working in the animation business from a beautiful mountaintop studio is the culmination of a dream for Stafford, 52, a Grateful Dead fanatic and former hang glider from Southern California. Stafford started his company in 2007 following years of working with some of the biggest names in the animation and gaming industry – George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, Angel Studios and Spokane’s own Cyan Worlds, creator of “Myst.” A two-year stint with Cyan brought Stafford and his wife, Shelly, to this area in 2003. “I tried desperately to get comfortable in a cubicle,” Stafford said. But he kept thinking, “ ‘Why can’t I be on top of a mountain somewhere?’ It took a long time to find that opportunity.” Stafford found that place a few years ago on seven acres just north of Priest River. His home and studio are perched atop a bluff, with a spectacular view of the mountains and river. When he’s ready for a break, he wanders down a long slope for some fishing or gazes out the window at the birds at his feeders or the deer in his yard. “My goal here is lifestyle,” Stafford said. But he can also achieve the goal of creating high-end facial animation from his home computer thanks to software programs like FaceFX, created by OC3 Entertainment in North Carolina. The software enables FacePro to take audio files provided by customers and synchronize them with facial movements an animated character might make while speaking or singing a phrase or song. That means showing pain in the eyes of a wounded character in an animated training video for first-responders. And it means realistic lip movements accompanying a vibrato in “American Idol Encore 2.” The software divides the face into zones, including the head, eyes, cheekbone muscles, ears and nose, then allowing for adjustments in movement, Stafford said. “We have a palette of controls,” he said. Stafford designs the standards he wants to achieve and the techniques he wants to use, then trains his animators on them. The members of his animation team, who all work as subcontractors, stretch from Sweden to Canada to the Bay Area. FacePro charges $50 per phrase (“I can’t feel my leg!”) and tries not to accept a job with fewer than 500 phrases. One 10-second phrase might take an animator 15 minutes to complete, so the money is good for subcontractors, and his customers like the simplicity of the billing, Stafford said. “It’s golden all the way around,” he said. For “American Idol,” Stafford declined to disclose his billing system for competitive purposes. In addition, he said, he doesn’t want to damage ongoing negotiations for work on the video game’s next version. Each year FacePro has been in business, Stafford said, annual revenues have doubled, reaching the low $100,000 range last year.“He’s one of the better people out in the gaming industry for animating faces,” said Jerry Heneghan, CEO of Virtual Heroes, a technology company that serves clients in the federal government, the health care industry, and other corporate and commercial fields. FacePro provided facial animation for characters in a training video the company completed for the Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with George Washington University. Heneghan said Stafford works hard to exceed expectations. “Getting virtual heads to function in real time, in a dynamic environment with multiple players, that’s the domain he excels in.” For “American Idol,” FacePro completed 200 minutes of facial animation covering 40 songs, and nothing was returned for revision, Stafford said. Stafford’s pathway into animation is marked by innovation, entrepreneurship and a desire to have fun. During high school, he took a summer job as the Winnie the Pooh character at Disneyland. In his mid-20s, he was a “hang-gliding bum,” illustrating magazines about the sport for cash. A hang-gliding buddy was into cars, and the two of them, along with his friend’s father, spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas for the automotive industry. They ended up creating a tailgate net for small trucks which became successful and eventually was sold to another company. By the mid-1980s, 80 people worked at their factory shipping 20,000 to 30,000 Pro Net Tailgate Nets a month at $10 a unit. “We just got lucky,” Stafford said. “That was a lucky break.” In the late 1980s, computer graphics were starting to become hot, especially for TV commercials, Stafford said, so he sold his shares in the tailgate net company to his partners and bought a computer animation station, which at that point was the size of a refrigerator. He spent a year learning to use it, picking up freelance animation jobs along the way. In 1990, Industrial Light and Magic hired him to work for a year designing “ride films.” Those are the amusement park shows in which a seated audience watches an animated film that makes them feel as though they’re inside some type of environment. Stafford was earning a lot of money and was surrounded by intelligent, creative people that he enjoyed being around. “I pinch myself every day,” he said. “I just went, ‘Wow, I want my whole life to be like that.’” The job ended a year later, and over the course of the next dozen years, he freelanced and hired on with companies, doing computer animation for everything from military and corporate training videos to video games. After the video game industry took off in the mid-1990s, he said, he had a hand in designing characters including “Ecco the Dolphin,” “Mr. Bones” (a guitar-playing skeleton), “James Bond 007: Nightfire” and those in games such as “Abe’s Oddysee,” “Lands of Lore III” and “HoloSport Fighters.” In 2003, he moved to Spokane with his wife to work for Cyan Worlds. Company President Tony Fryman noted in particular one of Stafford’s innovations – a process for capturing actors’ facial expressions on camera and enabling them to be realistically translated to the faces of characters in the game. “The implementation … really helped that component, really gave it realism,” Fryman said. When Stafford left Cyan two years later, he decided to develop a niche in an area he was already known for – facial animation. He figured he could offer reduced overhead because he owned his own equipment and could work from the home office he’d dreamed about. “Rod’s a one-man show,” said Heneghan, of Virtual Heroes. “This is what he does. He’s really good at this area of expertise. ”
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