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Crazy Talk 7 puts character animation power on your Mac

Putting words in other people's mouths: more of a hobby than a vocation for most people, I'd say. If your work or play involves facial animation, however, you know how much work goes into making fake speech look convincingly real.

Although there are impressive pro animation tools for this task, they might run you hundreds or thousands of dollars per seat. That's why the Mac version of Reallusion's US$29.99 Crazy Talk 7 Standard is such an intriguing product. For a modest cost, this app delivers impressive character animation power -- with a learning curve that's not too steep for amateurs.

Crazy Talk lets you work with libraries of preconfigured characters, where mouth movements and other motions are already pinned to specific features on the character's image. You can also pull in your own images for the face animation treatment; political or corporate portraits seem to work particularly well, as do pet snapshots.

For the DIY images, the app walks you through preparing them with essential feature points -- corners of the eyes, point of the chin and so forth. The idea is to make a model of the character's face that will react appropriately to the audio using Crazy Talk's Auto Motion feature.

Once the base character "puppet" is ready, Crazy Talk really gets to work. Import or record your dialogue audio (or use the built-in text to speech feature) and the Auto Motion animation tools will analyze sounds and phonemes, trying to match mouth and face motions to the soundtrack. You can tweak emotions, attitudes or the overall character energy with a few clicks.

The results range from decidedly comical to eerily realistic. In the example here, I've taken Tim Cook and put some of his comments from the recent earnings call in his virtual mouth. The whole process -- including defining the animation "bones" and grabbing the audio from the earnings call podcast feed -- took less than 15 minutes for this clip, and even though the results are kind of rough (sorry about the hair, Mr. Cook) it would not take too much refinement to get them looking really sharp. Of course, now that "Tim" is prepped, future animations using his character will take a lot less time.

Aside from the fun factor (which is decidedly present), training pros or web content authors may be able to leverage Crazy Talk to produce quick and hi-quality animated narrations or instructional vignettes. Putting a face with the voice, even an animated one, can help improve engagement and attention versus a voiceover-only approach. Game developers and other animation users may find Crazy Talk or its sister app, iClone (for 3D character animation) useful entries in the utility belt.

Crazy Talk's look and feel certainly carries some of its PC heritage in its flat UI and sometimes-confusing controls, and it has a few annoying quirks (no app should ever hijack focus when it's done with a lengthy task like a video export; that's what bouncing the dock icon is for!) but with a little bit of time and effort you can get something really interesting out of it. Crazy Talk 7 Standard is $29.99 via the Mac App Store; the Pro version ($149.95) delivers much more manual control, higher-end animation options and keyframe editing for projects.

Here's another video sample from the app, featuring Sarcastic Cat.