Moondog Animation Studio

Concept art for development of a ceiling projection for the upcoming Union station St. Louis Missouri.

The Evolution of Moondog Animation Studio

 

July 2019 marked the kick-off the 50th anniversary celebration of Apollo 11, NASA’s first successful mission to land human beings on the moon. It’s hard to imagine that today more advanced technology powers many aspects of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex than was available in 1969 to put three American astronauts on the moon…and bring them back home safely. 

As the festivities began gearing up at Cape Canaveral in Titusville, Fla. to remember this extraordinary event that captivated the world, the founders of MOONDOG Animation Studio breathed a collective sigh of relief. While none of the three were alive when Astronaut Neil Armstrong made his first steps on the moon, catapulting humankind into the technology era, they were now intimately aware of the feat that made that grand adventure so memorable. By joining the creative team charged with up-fitting all the content in the Space Center’s Apollo/Saturn V Exhibition, they believed their studio could help bring that mission to life for subsequent generations.

MOONDOG’s principals, Bryan Ransom, Jean-Marc Khayat and Ben Davis, knew the project would push the limits of their small boutique animation studio located in Mount Pleasant, S.C. “Ultimately, we developed all the touch-screen interactives in the exhibit,” explains Davis, who is the studio’s chief technology officer. “Through these interactives, visitors are able to try their hand at landing on the moon. Then they can see if they can get all the ratios of payload, thrust, etc. right in order to take off from the moon.

“Through other interactive exhibits,” continues Davis, “visitors have opportunities to see into the past. Some of the interactives are more effects-driven than others, but all will allow people to experience various aspects of the race to the moon as it unfolded.”

As the “One Giant Step” celebration geared up, the founders of MOONDOG Animation knew their work with NASA represented a giant step forward for their company. In under a decade, their team had grown from a small company with a handful of talented IT professional to a busy one with 25. “With so many opportunities now coming our way,” notes Davis, “we’re no longer a boutique shop doing one project at a time. We’ve become an actual studio that’s grown past the three of us.”

Initially founded to produce full-length animated feature films, MOONDOG’s founders have always envisioned themselves as “partners in storytelling.” Ben continues, “One of our goals and dreams is to make animated feature films. That’s still a quality-driven means of telling a story. But it’s not the only way of telling stories. With the rapid advancement of technology, we can engage different audiences in a great number of ways.”

Kiosks showing a fully interactive flight path of the Saturn V rocket from launch to touchdown on the Moon at Kennedy Space Center for the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11.

Interactive kiosks at Kennedy Space Center for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 that allow the user to explore a 3-D lunar module, input the sequence to launch off the Moon and even play golf on the Moon.

Concept art for the development of a projection experience on the ceiling of the upcoming Union Station St. Louis Aquarium. 

St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station

There’s any number of stories to be told at the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station. This long-term project engaged the MOONDOG team to produce all digital content including theming, hardware and promotional media projects.

“This is a huge train station that became a mall,” says Davis of the facility. “Now that malls aren’t really working anymore, the new owners are turning the old train station into a huge center-of-town attraction, with the aquarium being one of its pieces. We’re doing most of the interactives and anything that’s engaging in the aquarium other than the actual fish.”

In addition to touch screen experiences and interactive kiosks, one of the pinnacles of MOONDOG’s creative endeavor is a character talk show. “Basically, we’re expanding on what’s already being done to drive 3D characters,” states Davis. “We’re installing a digital puppeteer system in which an actor becomes one of the on-screen characters. Imagine a big screen where you see a cartoonish otter in its habitat. Through the use of a camera feed, Tom the Otter will actually be able to see the audience, call out to people. This is being done in a few other places, but we’re bringing a facial recognition component to this interactive conversation. There are all kinds of problems and technical challenges involved, but it’s been a fun project.

Another amazing aspect of the aquarium project is the development of an Augmented Reality Sandbox. “Visitors to the aquarium will be able to carve out and play with the topology, thanks to this big AR Sandbox,” explains Davis. “Projection will make what visitors are doing in the sand come to life.”

 

The Drone Racing League

According to Davis, professional pilots in the Drone Racing League race identical, custom-built drones at break-neck speeds through three-dimensional courses usually set-up in stadiums or warehouses. But league sponsor, Cox Communication, had the idea to bring the drone racing experience to non-pilots. That’s when MOONDOG Animation teamed up with NEXTMedia and MediaMation, Inc. to develop a “ride” that simulates what it might feel like to race in a Drone Racing League race while sitting on top of the drone in virtual reality on a motion actuated seat that makes the rider feel the rush of the racing experience.

“It’s a pop-up event that Cox brings to trade shows or client events,” says Davis. “We built upon MediaMation’s MX4D seat which moves in sync with the movie action and special EFX generators in a cinema setting. We worked together to create an experience in which everything riders are seeing in virtual reality, they’re also feeling it in every movement. Virtual reality alone can be nauseating. We were able to connect what the mind sees with what the body feels to make the experience a lot of fun.”

Flight Speed by COX Communications VR Drone Racing where the user is transported into a Drone Racing League. Championship race weaving through obstacles and checkpoints. 

Material Desk

MOONDOG Animation recently completed an interesting project for SANDOW, a fully integrated solutions platform that includes leading content, tools and services for the design industry. SANDOW developed Material Bank Lab, a proprietary platform as an answer to the architecture and design community’s need to streamline and speed up the material searching and sampling process. Material Bank made its national debut at NeoCon 2019 in June and will remain in a marquis spot at the Mart in Chicago at least for the coming year.

As part of SANDOW’s effort to revolutionize the contract design industry, the company teamed up with MOONDOG Animation to develop Material Desk, an interactive touchscreen that helps architects and designers create palettes with renderings of samples from Material Bank’s massive library. Materials can then be easily ordered and delivered next-day. The Material Desk touchscreen is slated to be beta tested in architecture and design firms in the coming year.

“This is another facet of MOONDOG we haven’t talked too much about because storytelling is still at our core,” notes Davis. “Since the creation of interactives and augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality…all these different areas of technology…we’ve discovered that sometimes the story is actually about what people are doing, what their work objectives are, and in this case, what they are trying to achieve in the design industry. We’re still partners in storytelling, but we’re now trying to figure out what it means to tell stories with all of these different ways of doing it.”

 

Lord Corporation

MOONDOG Animation recently achieved the impossible for LORD Corporation, a diversified technology and manufacturing company that develops highly reliable adhesives, coatings, motion management devices, and sensing technologies for industries such as aerospace, automotive, and oil & gas. “We created 22-inch-long 3D printed models of a truck and car as the targets for an augmented reality app used at tradeshows,” describes Davis. “Using iPads, attendees can look at these vehicles and suddenly see them with X-ray vision. Then you can click on various parts such as the brakes, axils, motors, seats, and battery packs to find out more about them through the augmented reality touch tablets.

“Everything we’re doing is almost always brand new,” he continues. “it’s never proven. There’s not software that just does it. We have to hack things together. For the augmented reality app, tracking a 3D model with no trackers, no images, no QR codes, no sensors…it’s almost impossible. In fact, we had a studio on the West Coast ask us to take over the AR app because they couldn’t figure it out. In a sense, it was frustrating. We had to convince even our industry partners that we weren’t crazy…that the ideas we were chasing were actually feasible. We were convinced we could do it, but we couldn’t convince other professionals that it was possible. But we took it over and got it done. For us, it opened a whole new area of possibilities for the future.”

 

“Blue’s Zoo”

“Apparently, we’re getting pretty good at doing fish,” says Davis referring to his company’s work with the St. Louis Aquarium. “We’ve created a television series called ‘Blue’s Zoo,’ a series about fish underwater. The show includes a cast of funny characters.”

Davis says that the first season of “Blue’s Zoo” includes 26 seven-minute episodes that are being distributed through a mix of outlets including Netflix, Nickelodeon and others. “Jean-Marc is in France right now to assemble teams so we can split the load. Three French teams will be taking on different parts of this project, as will teams in Colorado and on the West Coast.”

Davis says that MOONDOG is growing into its role as a leader and innovator in the world of animation. “We are blessed to have Rajiv Kapur, who joined our team to handle the processes and structures to take on new projects, execute them properly, milestone them correctly, meet client expectations and make sure that we, as artists, are accountable for what we do,” states Davis. “He has quite a successful track record and we are fortunate to have him on our team. He works closely with Mary Beall, our chief performance manager, to make sure MOONDOG is ready for the future.”

Early concept development for the animated series Weird Waters currently in pre-production. 

Underwater design and experience concept art for the upcoming Union Station St. Louis Aquarium opening in December 2019

© 2019 Southeast Film Guide