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Finding Silicon Valley Success on the Rhine

Mr. Clean, the international poster-boy for household cleaning is going digital thanks to the help of one of Germany and Europe’s fastest rising computer design firms. DW-WORLD goes behind the scenes with Fiftyeight 3D.


Hygiene expert Mr. Clean had his act cleaned up and language skills polished

Learning four different languages at age 44 is an impressive feat – even for a computer character.

Thanks to over fifteen sets of digitally animated lip movements, Mr. Clean, the internationally known brand icon for household cleaners, can now deliver his lemon-scented lines in German, Italian, Flemish, and French.

Transforming the bushy-browed baldhead, replete with signature wrinkles and muscles bulging underneath a white shirt, into a freely moving three-dimensional character was one thing. Synchronizing the slogans with the facial expressions of the global player also known as "Don Limpio," "Mastro Lindo," and "Meister Proper," was a whole other challenge.

The difficult assignment from advertising giants Proctor and Gamble went to Fiftyeight 3D, a Wiesbaden-based animation and digital effects team that is fast becoming one of Europe’s most celebrated computer design firms. Though a young upstart on the global digital animation scene, the company has made a name for itself in the four years since founders Max Zimmermann, Timm Osterhold and Marc Eckert set up shop in a crammed basement office.

Today, their list of clients include Kirch New Media, Olympus, MTV Europe, Sega and Universal Music. Since grounding the company in 1998, the three have pocketed a slew of awards, including first place at the German "Animago," the "Vancouver Awards & Animation Festival" and the British "Bradford Animation Festival." A Silver Lion at Cannes for creating the "Cyber-Pirates" web site is their biggest success yet, says co-founder Zimmermann.

Not bad for a group of guys rejected from design schools because the admissions office felt they had a "total lack of recognizable talent," according to the rejection letters Zimmermann and Osterhold received.

Turning a negative into a positive

Instead of getting upset over the rejection letters, the trio pooled resources and formulated a business plan. Their subsequent rise mirrors the success stories of Silicon Valley start-ups, a noteworthy accomplishment in a country not known for encouraging young entrepreneurial spirit.

The group obtained seed money through a government-funded "Jungunternehmer-Darlehen," or young entrepreneurs’ loan, backed by the Deutsche Darlehensbank and the Deutsche Ausgleichsbank.

Fiftyeight 3D’s startup-capital of 153,000 euro ($144,000) went into two high-end double-processor computers running the pro-level digital animation software Softimage XSI – the kind of equipment used for digital effects on motion pictures like Jurrassic Park and the new Star Wars episodes.

Their investment proved immediately profitable. In their first year alone, Fiftyeight 3D received 255,000 euro ($240,00) in revenue from assignments. The number doubled in 2000 and their staff increased to 12 employees.

The New Economy bust of that year dealt Fiftyeight only a glancing blow, sending their advertising revenue sinking but having little effect elsewhere in the company business plan. The firm continued to grow.

"We did not have to drop anyone from the team and managed to expand when times weren’t easy," said Eckert.

These days Fiftyeight 3D occupies a 1,800 square-feet studio in Wiesbaden’s motion picture think-tank Unter den Eichen. Their staff has expanded to 15 employees and a pool of freelancers.

The regular rate for digital character design lies at 1,900 euro per day. A complex character like Mr. Clean takes two to four weeks to animate.

It begins with a sketch

A three-dimensional computer personage begins its life on the sketch-pad. "We all have a strong background in conventional graphics," Zimmermann points out.

Once a creature has assumed shape on paper, computer artists create a digital skeleton, which is then coated with surface textures like skin or metal.

The resulting model can be viewed from an unlimited number of camera positions and embedded into three-dimensional environments. Their creations move at a pace of 25 frames per second.

"Every time one of our animators finishes a character, we say he’s become a daddy," Zimmermann said.

The Fiftyeight 3D kindergarten includes a motley bunch of digital toddlers from grunting yellow aliens to assault rifle toting Japanese battle robots. Every digital inception has its own story.

The challenge in Mr. Clean’s case was to provide an already well-known two-dimensional character with a matching three-dimensional body, Zimmermann says.

"If we gave him a bubbly head or a crooked nose, people would notice," the artist said.

After the charismatic baldpate’s movements had been choreographed on computer, the critically-acclaimed cleaning and disinfectant specialist was blended into a filmed real-life background. From there, he instructs despairing housewives, "Non vivere per pulire, pulisci per vivere...meglio." Italian for "Live not to clean up, clean up to live."

For an international player on Mr. Clean’s scale, rest is practically unheard of. The are also plans for action figures of the "new" Mr. Clean and, to no surprise, more language lessons.

The future of the busy and successful 3D marketing icon, in other words, seems to be as bright and active as that of his creators.

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