The Baltimore Sun June 2006
Editorial cartoons enter new dimension
With digital imaging, Kevin Kallaugher creates a likeness of Bush
By Nick Madigan
On a video screen at the Walters Art Museum, President Bush, standing at a lectern adorned with the presidential seal, mutters that he is ready to meet "them pesky media types, the members of the real estate."
An aide, offscreen, corrects him. The press, he says, is known as the "fourth estate."
"Oh, right," Bush responds out of the side of his mouth. "I'm ready for them, too."
Anyone who thinks editorial cartoons are a dying art should probably speak with Kevin Kallaugher, the former editorial cartoonist for The Sun, who has put together a digitally animated cartoon of Bush, a talking, grimacing, snickering caricature that could be a precursor to a whole set of similar digital images.
"I was fascinated with the idea of creating a caricature to the standard of great artists like Daumier and Thomas Nast - in the computer," Kallaugher, customarily known as Kal, said on a recent afternoon. "Can I make it move, can I make it talk? Can I make it talk back to me when I ask it a question?"
It turned out that he could. The result is on view at the Walters as part of a large retrospective of his work, titled Mightier Than the Sword: The Satirical Pen of KAL, that runs until Sept. 3. In addition to the digital president, there are more than 200 cartoons in the exhibit, most of them from The Sun, where the 51-year-old cartoonist worked for 17 years, and The Economist magazine, for which he began drawing covers in 1978 and continues to do so.
"You can't top this," Kallaugher said, sitting on a bench among his framed creations lining the walls. "It's a crucial changing point in my career. While we were putting together this exhibit, the notion of scratching black lines on paper with a crow quill pen and India ink seemed like an ancient ritual."
Seeing his work of 30 years displayed in one place, Kallaugher said it seemed "very appropriate in a museum, where everything is ancient history, because it may not be around much longer."
To stem just such a demise of his craft, Kallaugher approached the Imaging Research Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in December, when it appeared he would be leaving The Sun the following month after accepting a buyout.
Dan Bailey, the IRC's director, said Kallaugher told him he wanted to "look at the future" of cartoons.
"We're always looking for something that pushes technology," said Bailey, who leaped on Kallaugher's idea of creating three-dimensional digital caricatures, an emerging but largely untested field. The college immediately named Kallaugher artist-in-residence.
The goal was to have a moving image of Bush ready for the opening of the Walters retrospective on June 18. Starting at the beginning of February, that gave Kallaugher and his new team just over four months to figure out how to do it and then execute it.
Kallaugher started with a block of foam into which he carved the shape of Bush's face and head. The bust was then scanned with lasers at Direct Dimensions Inc., a company in Owings Mills, where it was turned into a three-dimensional computer image.
"But it didn't move - we had to give it life," Kallaugher said. "That was when the animators and technicians at UMBC took over."
The team - led by Bailey and comprised of Eric Smallwood, the IRC's technical director; Shane Lynch, a computer science undergraduate; and Chad Eby, a graduate student in the Imaging and Digital Arts program - set up two different types of animation for the Bush figure.
The first was the so-called key-frame animation, in which the computer image, criss-crossed by a grid, was manipulated to move in synch with a voice track - Bush's encounter with the reporters - that Kallaugher himself had already recorded. (His impression of the president's raspy Texan drawl is spot-on.)
But Kallaugher - a lifelong puppeteer and ventroloquist - wanted to be able to control the Bush image in "live" settings, that is, to make it move at will in front of audiences, like a real puppet.
"So we turned to the three members of the IRC who'd grown up playing video games," Kallaugher said, referring to Smallwood, Lynch and Eby. They came up with two joysticks: The left is for Bush's head, which rotates, goes forward, back, up and down. The right joystick manages his mouth, the smirks and puckers, grimaces and guffaws. And there are two foot pedals, one for each eyebrow.
A button on one of the joysticks makes Bush's ears bigger, and another makes his shoulders bounce up and down when he snickers. The eye blinking was programmed to be automatic.
"These joysticks look like they could fly a 747," Kallaugher said, laughing.
At a preview of the show, the cartoonist hid just offstage in the Walters' auditorium, manipulating the computer's joysticks and imitating Bush's voice into a microphone as the moving, digital image of the president was projected onto a large screen.
"I am a big fan of Kal - Ripken," the Bush figure said in a "speech" filled with non sequiturs. Referring to the debate on illegal immigration, he said, "Those folks from Latin America - all they want to do is speak Latin."
Later, he said, "Everyone in my administration is a straight-shooter - except maybe the vice president."
Kallaugher will demonstrate the bust for the public in a program at 2 p.m. Sunday at the museum.
Will Noel, the exhibit's co-curator (along with Kallaugher), said the object of the show was to treat cartoons as high art.
"It's both a restrospective of Kal's work and a springboard to the future," Noel said. The digital cartoon, he added, "will take caricature in a whole new direction."
Bailey, the IRC director, agreed. "Political cartooning has never been done this way, ever," he said. "There are very few digital puppets of this complexity out there."
The next step, he said, is to create a digital puppet of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"We really want to be non-partisan," Bailey said. "The real challenge with Hillary is that she changes her hairstyle all the time."
>>>If you go Mightier Than the Sword: The Satirical Pen of KAL runs through Sept. 3 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Admission is part of the general admission. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. Call 410-547-9000, or go to thewalters.org