For the Emmy Award winning Archer Scavenger Hunt 2016, I written, directed, and animated this six minute short film entirely using ASCII, the plain text document encoding format. Its purpose was to fill in the back story of Dr Krieger's pets and their perilous journey from New York to Los Angeles and is loosely based on the movie Homeward Bound.
At no point was ASCII Bound animated or edited using traditional animation tools. It was literally created in a simple text editor. Creating ASCII art is a slow process – the visuals are created by typing different letters, numbers and symbols, often trying different combinations until you achieve the desired look. Each frame is 14 lines tall and 65 columns wide and runs sequentially down the document. The finished short, including every frame, character, background, and scene, is contained in a very large text document 29,457 lines long with over 1.8 million ASCII characters, a significant number of them typed by hand!
Proof of concept
The first thing I made was a proof of concept animation. I created a walk cycle for each character – common practice in regular animation, but in the text-based ASCII genre elaborate movements are almost completely unheard of. I assume because of how archaic and tedious the whole process is. No mouse, no stylus, no keyframes or other modern crutches. The only tool is a simple text editor (ok, so there's a few ASCII drawing programs but I found them unsuitable for creating frame based animation).
Once the walk-cycle was complete, I could see the potential in developing this into something much more ambitious than your typical run-of-the-mill ASCII animation. Seeing the long, tedious path ahead of me, my friends doubted my sanity, but undeterred, I soldiered on.
To be more than a neat demo it needed a story behind it, a narrative that could stand up on it's own. Something with a beginning, a middle and an end. The idea of a Homeward Bound homage was suggested by the producers but it needed fleshing out. With nobody volunteering to help, I came up with a basic outline that fit into the Archer universe, then expanded it into a six minute short film script. Then it was full steam ahead on the animation.
I would be a maniac if I didn't at least try to find a few shortcuts. Copy and paste helped out a lot, but it was not without it's problems – in a text file, every line and column is connected to the next so any disturbance can wreak havoc and throw everything out of alignment. I discovered that the program TextMate has a unique feature that allows you to drag a box over an exact multi-row section without selecting entire lines. This helped a great deal.
Yeah, but… why?
I almost forgot to mention, the whole purpose of this endeavor was to simply hide a puzzle for Archer Scavenger Hunt 2016, which was underway at the time. ASCII Bound was ostensibly created by the show's resident mad scientist and possible scavenger hunt mastermind Dr. Krieger, who would reveal his ASCII creation to the world in a tweet which would link to the animation's YouTube page.
The YouTube version of ASCII Bound features Krieger admiring his creation. His computer screen reveals he's watching the animation on Telnet, an antiquated text-based way of connecting to the internet that pre-dates the rich visual web we know today. The address is telnet figgis.agency and to the delight of the scavenger hunters, the address was real and the animation could actually be watched on Telnet in it's native text-based state. The link opened up a whole new dimension to the scavenger hunt and players willingly jumped down the rabbit hole.