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Uncle Duke’s Multimedia Run for White House

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tonight at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., Uncle Duke from the “Doonesbury” comic strip will toss his ratty baseball hat in the ring for the presidency in a multimedia presentation involving state-of-the-art computer animation.

Loren Tom, who played Honey Huan in the New York production of the “Doonesbury” musical, will reprise her role as Duke’s long-suffering “Gal Friday.” She’ll appear at the St. Regis Hotel, offering an audiovisual tour of the Duke 2000 Web site (https://www.Duke2000.com). At the end of her talk, Tom will trigger a bogus link to Duke’s campaign headquarters, the Coon Rapids E-Z Rest Motor Lodge in Coon Rapids, Minn.

“A 3-D version of Duke will stagger into frame, announce the campaign, then field questions,” says “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau. “I’m pretty confident people will assume they’re looking at a prerecorded animated clip, so it’s going to come as quite a shock when the character starts taking their questions and insulting them. If the technology doesn’t crash on us, it could be something no one’s ever seen before.”

Duke will interact with the press through a combination of computer graphics and a process called motion capture. Actor Fred Newman, who supplies Duke’s voice, will be backstage, wearing a special suit rigged with sensors. When Newman moves, data about the scale and direction of his movements will be translated to an on-screen, computer-generated image of Duke via a sophisticated combination of hardware and software.

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The event will kick off the Duke 2000 Campaign, an elaborate spoof of the presidential election that Trudeau describes as “the first fully integrated, multiplatform political campaign.” It’s being created by a partnership involving Trudeau, Universal Press Syndicate, Excite and the San Francisco-based animation studio Protozoa.

Duke’s campaign will unfold both in Trudeau’s daily newspaper strip and on the Internet.

Plans for the campaign began last November, when Trudeau drew a Sunday strip in which Honey pointed out that politicians had finally eliminated all the qualities once deemed requisite for higher office: Reagan (knowledge), Bush (vision), Gingrich (civility), Clinton (propriety) and Ventura (dignity). As a result, Warren Beatty, Cybill Shepherd, Donald Trump, Steve Forbes, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan could present themselves as candidates.

She concluded, “What was once a charming American myth is now officially true--anyone can be president.” Duke took this lament as a cue to enter the race himself.

Brad de Graf, co-founder and chief creative officer of Protozoa, had worked with Trudeau on the WebAid video of “Doonesbury” character Jimmy Thudpucker earlier that year. He, Trudeau and executive producer Buzz Hays had wanted to animate Duke, but couldn’t find an appropriate vehicle. He realized the potential presidential campaign was the opportunity they’d been looking for.

“When I saw it, I called Garry and said, ‘Does this mean you’re planning on running him for president? If so, that’s the thing we should do with Duke,’ ” recalls De Graf. “He said he actually hadn’t, but when we started talking about it, it started to make sense. It came down to Garry being comfortable with committing enough of his energy to the project for a year in order to do it well.”

Spoof Follows a Long Comic Strip Tradition

Comic strip artists have run their characters for president since 1908, when Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff were the candidates of the Bughouse Party. But turning the flat, two-dimensional character in “Doonesbury” into a rendered, three-dimensional figure posed special challenges.

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“Duke doesn’t have hair, which is one of the hardest things to do, and he always wears sunglasses,” De Graf explains. “The way Garry draws eyes is particularly difficult to translate into 3-D, because it’s hard to tell whether the outline of the eye is the eye socket or the eyeball. That was one of the hardest things about Jimmy Thudpucker--eyes are really important. But Duke doesn’t have any, so that solved that problem.”

Each week, the Duke 2000 Web site will feature new animation of the character, including speeches, news conferences, interviews and campaign ads. The segments may range in length from 30 seconds to Duke’s 13-minute declaration of his intention to run, which viewers will be able to download after it’s delivered in Aspen.

“What it most resembles, of course, is ‘Tanner ’88,’ especially in its lack of forethought and planning,” Trudeau says with a laugh, referring to the acclaimed HBO series he made with Robert Altman in 1988 about a fictional candidate on the presidential campaign trail. But he grows more serious when he turns to how the Web will enable him to respond to happenings in this year’s campaign: “We’ll try to react to events as they unfold: We’ll have about a one-week lead, which is better than I get with the strip, so the turn-around time should be pretty good.”

Indeed, the motion capture system enables the Protozoa artists to produce animation at a rate that would be impossible using conventional techniques.

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“We’ve found the medium of digital puppetry, or motion capture, is well suited to the Web in terms of the cost of the production, the immediacy and the efficiency of bringing the character to life,” De Graf says. “Those three components are very important in a medium where everything’s still being figured out. Motion capture allows us to produce stuff really fast and inexpensively: We can do things other forms of animation can’t. Producing multiple minutes a week of finished animation is something that’s really not possible in other media.”

In addition to the animated segments, the partners have devised a number of features for the Duke 2000 Web site. The Bio will consist of Duke’s FBI file; Duke’s son Earl will host the Youth Zone; and Honey will keep a journal of the campaign. Position papers giving Duke’s stand on various issues will be posted under Agenda. There are also plans for a store with buttons, posters, bumper stickers and T-shirts. (There also will be advertising to support the venture.)

Trudeau’s voice takes on a mischievous glee when he describes the substance of the campaign: “Duke characterizes his overall political philosophy as either compassionate fascism or coercive libertarianism. At his core, he holds libertarian values, but he believes in a kind of wide-ranging, state-sponsored political freedom. He’d require gun ownership and regulate marijuana packaging and distribution to help save the family farmer. He wants to underwrite a massive rebuilding of the nation’s aging racetracks.

“We haven’t really fleshed out the whole program,” he says. “At the moment, Duke is preoccupied with hiring an escort who’s fully competitive with Trump’s on-again/off-again super-bimbo.”

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