Alchemy II Makes Technology Cuddly : Company Tries to Conjure Up Cash With New Talking Bear

Times Staff Writer

Ken Forsse says he named his company Alchemy II because he identified with the sorcerers who tried to turn lead into gold in the Middle Ages. In his case, the idea was to transform inanimate stuffed animals and other creatures into lifelike beings--and also make a little corporate gold in the process.

The technique for Forsse’s alchemy was a little 20th-Century technology that could make amusement park animals sing, television creatures cackle and a teddy bear tell bedtime stories.

Forsse, president of Northridge-based Alchemy II, developed a method for synchronizing the mouths of stuffed and costumed characters with the voices that come out of them. On the same tape that carries the sound track, it records electronic directions for the accompanying movements of plastic lips, cheeks and jaws.


Final Production on Program

So far, Alchemy II has not been successful in turning fantasy and technology into profit. But Forsse is hoping that the 5-year-old company may soon make gold through a talking bear with a sweet smile named Teddy Ruxpin.

Last week, Alchemy II put final production touches on the programs that will mark the character’s TV debut. ABC is scheduled to air two half-hour specials on consecutive Saturday mornings, Nov. 30 and Dec. 7. Negotiations for a series are also in the works.

The shows will feature Teddy and his friends, Grubby and Gimmick, fighting off the evil frog-headed Tweeg and his henchmen in a search for ancient treasure hidden in the land of Grundo--a Hobbit-like world complete with castles and dungeons.

The characters in ‘The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin” are all played by costumed actors. But the facial movements are controlled independently from the actors by signals from a small transmitter in the studio’s control board.

New Toy a Hot Item

Alchemy II is also earning royalties on a just-released Teddy Ruxpin talking doll, a hot item despite its steep $70 retail price. The toy is made by a Fremont, Calif., company through a licensing agreement.

According to Worlds of Wonder, the licensee, more than a million Teddy Ruxpin dolls will be sold by Christmas. A spokesman for Toys R Us, the toy-store chain, said the Teddy Ruxpins are selling better than Cabbage Patch dolls did during their first year.

Alchemy II received most of its income from the licensing of its toys, according to Neal Simmons, vice president for administration and marketing for the privately held company. But he would not say what the royalty is for the Teddy Ruxpin and other dolls based on characters from the show.

Sales for the fiscal year ended Oct. 31 were close to $2 million, he said. Simmons said he expects that sales for the coming year will be much higher.

Main Offices Moving

The company is owned by Forsse, Simmons and two other principals, Larry Larsen and John Davies. All have backgrounds in children’s entertainment. Alchemy II employs 70 people full-time at its design studios in Northridge and Chatsworth. The main offices will be shifted to the Chatsworth office early next month.

Executives in the children’s television industry say lifelike movements that are timed well with the sound track can make the difference between a successful show and a flop. Alchemy II has a heavy investment in technology for its television show. Although ABC put up nearly half of the $1.5-million production budget, Alchemy II had to come up with the rest.

Squire Rushnell, an ABC vice president for children’s entertainment, said the usual budget for the time slot is $400,000 per hour, but that “the technology is so extraordinary, we decided it was worth it.”

Head Filled With Decoders

Teddy Ruxpin’s head is filled with electronic decoders that let the character yawn, frown, giggle and talk. The system uses the same technology that splits stereo sound. In this case, one track carries the sound, while the other carries the facial directions. They are transmitted to a tiny receiver in the character’s head.

Simmons said that the investment in costumes and set design will pay off if the company gets a regular television series, but that the special itself will not be a moneymaker except as a vehicle for selling the dolls.

Cartoons are initially cheaper to make than live costume shows such as Teddy Ruxpin, Forsse said. But the cost of retaining artists to draw new cartoons is higher on a series than the cost of using actors and existing sets and costumes for a Ruxpin-type show.

Prefers Using Actors

Forsse said he prefers using actors because “kids know cartoons aren’t real. But it’s not as obvious to them with a real costumed actor.”

Alchemy II officials say that by having the facial movements controlled by the sound-track tape, they are guaranteed that, no matter how many times studio technicians rewind the tape during filming of a program, the voice track and facial movements will stay synchronized.

Each syllable is programmed separately, Larsen said, so that a yell doesn’t look like a whisper. How the jaws, cheeks and lips should be moved for more subtle expressions--such as puzzlement or mild anger--are modeled after puppeteering techniques.

The technology that keeps the Teddy Ruxpin doll’s voice and lips in sync works similarly. Prerecorded standard audio cassettes that tell different stories are played inside the doll. Facial movements for the doll and its voice are recorded on separate tracks of the same tape.

The company has plans to market 20 story tapes, which the doll owner can pop in and out of the toy.

Usually Computer-Controlled

Moving characters in museum or amusement park exhibits are usually computer-controlled, with all of their movements programmed. They are considered to be too expensive for a project like a television series, however, because the entire body would have to be reprogrammed for each scene.

An early form of electromechanical animation was used by the Disney Channel beginning in 1982 for the “Welcome to Pooh Corner” series, which is now in re-runs. Alchemy II designed the figures. But, unlike Teddy Ruxpin, many of Pooh’s facial movements were done manually.

Forsse said he created Teddy Ruxpin 26 years ago with the idea of producing a television series around the bear, but was distracted over the years by other projects.