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Do you think that TV legends can't master computer animation? Well then ... You clearly don't know Dick.

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Do you think that TV legends can't master computer animation? Well then ... You clearly don't know Dick.

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It's Tuesday afternoon. And Nancy and I are slowly making our way through the crowded aisles at the LA Convention Center, trying to take the whole thing in. And -- out of the corner of my eye -- I spy a caricature of a favorite performer of mine being displayed on a computer monitor.

So I wander over to that booth -- the NewTek booth, to be exact -- and strike up a conversation with the technician manning the keyboard.

"That looks an awful lot like Dick Van Dyke," I say.

"It IS Dick Van Dyke, " the technician replies. "Thanks for noticing."

"That's a terrific likeness," I continue. "I'm sure that Mr. Van Dyke would be flattered to be recreated in this way. I hear that he's really into computer animation."

"Oh, he is," the tech guy responded. "Dick actually uses our software."

"Really?," I reply.

"Yep," the technician continues. "That's why he's coming here tomorrow."

"Excuse me?," I stammer. "Who's coming here tomorrow?"

"Dick Van Dyke," the technician says. "He's coming by the booth tomorrow to show off some of his computer animation."

And -- sure enough -- yesterday at 1:40 p.m., the star of "Mary Poppins" popped up at the NewTek booth. As he strode on stage, Mr. Van Dyke was greeted warmly by a crowd of incredulous computer fans. Who seemed genuinely stunned that a star of this magnitude would just be wandering around the LA Convention Center.

photo by Nancy Stadler

But -- as it turns out -- the stories are true, folks. Dick Van Dyke really is a huge computer animation fan. And -- as he stood on stage -- he proudly showed off the CG footage that he himself had created. Which showed a computer animated Van Dyke doing an old soft shoe on stage -- first alone, then accompanied by two CG dancing girls.

This was followed by some CG footage that had been generated by having Dick dress up in a motion capture suit. Then Van Dyke did one of his classic comic bit of a drunk stumbling around a stage. To see that bit up on the big screen -- just like Dick used to do on the old "Dick Van Dyke Show," only now in CG form -- was really sort of bizarre but fun.

Mind you, Van Dyke's not a Johnny-Come-Lately to computer animation. Dick's been into this stuff for years now, ever since he bought his first Amiga. He's even done some computer animation that you may have seen on the small screen.

And -- no -- I'm not talking about the soft shoe routine again. The one that appeared in that "Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited" TV special earlier this year (Which -- in a weird sort of co-incidence -- was rerun just last night on TV Land). But -- rather -- a CG motorcycle crash that actually appeared in an episode of Van Dyke's popular 1990s mystery series, "Diagnosis: Murder."

To explain: The script for this particular episode called for a spectacular crash involving a motorcycle. The only problem was ... There was no money in the budget for a location shoot and/or a stunt driver.

But this didn't stop Dick Van Dyke. He just went out -- on his own, mind you -- and shot a live action background plate. Then -- on his own time at home -- he used his personal computer to create this realistic looking CG motorcycle which crashed. Dick then combined the two pieces of footage and screened them for the producers of "Diagnosis Murder." These folks were just stunned that the star of their show was this sort of technical whiz.

photo by Nancy Stadler

"That's why I like to tell people that I'm a professional CG artists now," said Van Dyke. "I actually got paid for that effects shot. Only $200. But -- hey -- I got paid for my CG work. So I guess that means that I'm a professional now."

Nowadays, though, Dick's semi-retired. Which is why he mostly concentrates on putting together CG projects that will entertain just his friends and family. Which is why Van Dyke will first shoot live action footage of his grandchildren running & quaking in fear, then layer that over with computer animation of zoo animals chasing them.

Still, Dick dreams of someday using his homegrown expertise at computer animation to create something a little bigger, something a little grander. As Van Dyke himself said today from the stage at the NewTek booth:

"I'd love to make an animated feature someday. Or -- at the very least -- a Christmas special. I've actually already got an idea that I think might work. About this toymaker who dances with toys. I've even built some of the CG toys already."

So -- if some enterprising producer wants to get a hold of Mr. Van Dyke -- who knows? We may all soon be in for a charming new holiday special. All because -- 20 years or so ago -- Dick glanced at a computer, saw a flying toaster and thought: "What the heck was that?"

All in all, it was a very enjoyable 30 minutes of so. Dick regaled the crowd with stories about how people used to do special effects films 'way back in olden times. He laughed as he talked about all the blue screen work that Van Dyke had to do on "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." How -- because the weather had been so miserable. Which meant that you cheated. (EX: The weather in the U.K. was so miserable during the summer in the mid-1960s when they were actually shooting "Chitty" that the film's production company had no choice but to pack everything up and then move the shoot to the South of France. Where -- according to Dick -- the film's director then really had his work cut out for him. Coming up with ways to hide all of this vineyards that kept poking up in the background.)

After his appearance at the NewTek booth, Mr. Van Dyke was nice enough to chat with me for a few moments as well as pose for a picture.

photo by Nancy Stadler

And I'm pleased to report that Dick Van Dyke really is a genuinely nice guy. Incredibly gracious & charming, I just found it fascinating that someone who is so obviously old school Hollywood (I.E. Dick went out of his way to entertain this audience at SIGGRAPH. By telling funny stories, making amusing faces & gestures, etc.). And yet here is this 79-year-old performer who is clearly having a ball with CG. Who is obviously keeping himself young by doing everything he can to keep up to speed about the cutting edge of technology.

I really hope that Dick finally gets to achieve his dream. That -- someday -- he'll get the opportunity to direct his very own animated feature and/or holiday special. Given that I achieved one of my own dreams yesterday (I.E. To someday get to meet & talk with Dick Van Dyke), I wouldn't mind slinging a little good karma Van Dyke's way.

Sooo ... If there are any Hollywood producer-types out there who actually read this web page (Yeah. Like THAT's going to happen), have I got an idea for you: A holiday special directed by TV & screen legend Dick Van Dyke, featuring CG characters that Van Dyke himself created. Doesn't that sound like something that baby boomers & their kids would really respond to?

If that sounds like something worth pursuing, please give Dick a call. And tell him that Hill -- that Disney dweeb from New Hampshire -- sent you, okay?

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  • What a cool experience! Mary Poppins is one of my all time favorite films when I was growing up. It's nice to know that Mr. Van Dyke has embraced technology in this way. I always think about what technology will come in the next generation or two and will I be able to keep up. Hope to follow in his footsteps. Thanks for writing such a captivating post.

  • This is too cool! Not just that Mr. Van Dyke is into CG, but that he's actually good at it!

  • Whats funny about that is that Jack Eastman, one of the original creators of the Flying Toaster (After Dark, the first professional screensaver) was a old classmate of mine. One can look it up in the Wikipedia for After Dark... I noticed it one day while installing the software that his name was scrolling across the screen of the installer, so I call him up.

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