he “first internet meme” is a widely debated subject online. Even so, the famous “Dancing Baby” is often the one you’ll see attributed to this esteemed title, being one of the earliest examples of internet phenomena to go viral.
Way back in 1996, Michael Girard, Robert Lurye and John Chadwick created the original “cha-cha baby” dance file and released it into the world as part of product sample source files included in Character Studio, a 3D character animation software by Kinetix/Autodesk. After being set to the song “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede during a 1997 episode of the TV show Ally McBeal, the animation forever cemented its place among the halls of internet fame.
Now, 26 years later, we sat down with Michael Girard to catch up on the story of Dancing Baby — with everything from how they first created the meme to what it’s been up to more recently.
Q: Welcome, Michael. Since it’s been a long, long time since Dancing Baby’s heyday, let’s start with a quick intro to let everyone know who you are and what you’re known for online.
A: My name is Michael Girard. First of all, I’m a computer animation software architect and a digital artist. I’m now an indie game developer, but I’m probably best known as part of the team that created the original Dancing Baby meme.
Q: For those who missed out on the meme, could you explain what Dancing Baby is exactly?
A: The Dancing Baby is actually an animation loop of a 3D computer-animated baby dancing like an adult. I think that’s what makes it so unusual. The baby resembles a baby doll rather than a real baby, and the baby gracefully performs a series of rhythmically performed dance steps, which begins with an air guitar gesture, the baby twirls, leans, bows and jumps and shakes its hips. The motion has a sense of gravity and weight and the Dancing Baby is known to be the first viral video and the first internet meme.
Q: Alright, so diving into the backstory of Dancing Baby, can you give us the full history of how you, John Chadwick and Robert Lurye created it?
A: The history is somewhat complicated, and it actually began back in graduate school at the computer graphics research group at Ohio State where Robert, John and I met. At that time, computer animation was just getting started, we were using mainframe computers and ice-cold rooms with alpha-numeric terminals. But 10 years later, we started our own company called Unreal Pictures and that consisted of John Chadwick, myself and my wife, Susan Amkraut.
So the Dancing Baby, which was later to become the first viral video, was actually born from very humble beginnings as a sample file to demonstrate the footstep-driven technique and John’s rigging of the deformation of the character’s body to essentially the character skeleton that was animated by the software. The software used a combination of automation to give you kind of base keyframes to work from, and then you could go in and refine those key friends to really create a stylized and more detailed animation.
So we hired Robert Lurye as a freelance animator to help us create more sample files. We took an initial file that I had created, and so in a sense, we worked together on doing the keyframe animation, and John Chadwick animated the dynamics of the rigging on the Dancing Baby so that the skin, lips and body moved with the skeleton. So then we released the software in 1996 with the sample file, and our customers used 3D Studio Max to render the Dancing Baby sample file. A customer named Ron Lussier, who at that time worked at Lucasarts, created a rendering of our sample file that’s probably the most popular.
Q: When you first made it, what did you or other people you initially showed it to think of it at the time? Did you ever expect it to become a big thing people spread around?
A: I think Robert and John, were actually the first to see it, since they are more involved in the skinning of the skeletal deformation of the geometry, and I remember both of them telling me that they realized they really had something, and I did too. It was striking to us, and it was a great example of our new animation techniques.
I remember at that time, Intel had just invented the Pentium chip, and they used the Dancing Baby as an example of how their hardware was now capable of rendering real-time playback of animation. So in a sense, it was at a time when personal computing was in its infancy in terms of supporting 3D media production. But yeah, there’s no way we would have anticipated that it would have spread the way that it did.
Q: Over the following years, Dancing Baby became immensely popular as people remixed it and began doing parodies. Do you remember when you first saw your creation being used in other people’s memes or referenced in shows like The Simpsons?
A: Probably the most important rendering of the Dancing Baby in terms of its popularity was when it was featured in a television show called Ally McBeal. Depending on when you’re born, you may or may not remember this, but there was a very popular episode in which the main character is thinking about whether or not she wants to have a baby or not, and so it appeared in this episode.
I think during the Emmy award, it was actually the first time I saw this version of the Dancing Baby within a live-action context, and that was a very big deal at the time because television was really the predominant mainstream media of that time. So the phones were ringing off the hook at Autodesk, who published our software, and I was asked to be in several interviews. I remember the headline across USA Today included renderings of the Dancing Baby across its front page.
Then from that, there was Dancing Baby merchandise, T-shirts, dolls and CDs, all manufactured by third parties, and then in 1998, a 16-year-old high school student named Rob shared and created a website to distribute gifts of the Dancing Baby. That also played a major role in terms of the spread of the Dancing Baby over the internet.
So we had both mainstream media and the internet being a major source of creating this meme that we know today. It appeared in popular news magazine programs such as Public Eye and Hard Copy, and now it’s associated with the birth of the internet through references from The Simpsons recent commercial advertising, including from Delta Air Lines and Facebook. In 2004, our company Unreal Pictures, a small three-person company, was acquired by Autodesk, and so now the Dancing Baby is a trademark of a multi-billion-dollar company.
Q: Once Dancing Baby had become this massive meme, what did your friends or family think of it? Do you ever discuss your involvement in creating such an internet icon with people or is it not something you bring up too often?
A: Well, truthfully at that time, my friends and family probably loved the Dancing Baby more than I did. Because after we added the motion capture capability to our animation software, I had the opportunity to work and share ideas about my dreams and what computational choreography might become, hence the dance steps, with famous American choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Bill T Jones and William Forsythe.
So the Dancing Baby, by comparison, didn’t seem like a serious representation of my artistic direction at that time, but now actually with our new digital restoration, after looking at it 26 years later, I’m satisfied with the artistic qualities of the Dancing Baby animation.
Q: Of the many, many Dancing Baby variants out there, which ones do you find the funniest or the most clever? Any particular types you enjoy?
A: Well, looking back, I would say the Ally McBeal Dancing Baby was probably the most striking version, it stands out in my mind as an imagined computer-animated baby dancing in a live-action scene, with a live-action television character, the kind of hybrid form, anticipated the technology of augmented reality that is now just in its early stages of development.
I suppose in a sense, the neuroscience tells us, and our own introspective experience of the world tells us that augmented reality is actually a part of just everyday human consciousness in terms of just the way we use our imaginations and fantasize and so forth, but I really appreciated all the customers’ variants for their whimsical fun and sense of humor. Almost all memes rely on a collective creative collaboration of other artists’ contributions, and the Dancing Baby is no exception.
Q: Dancing Baby being one of the most historic memes in internet history, why do you think people loved it so much looking back on it now?
A: That’s a good question. I think a baby is a symbol of birth, life and hope for the future. Dancing is associated with carefree, playful spontaneity and bliss. So a dancing baby is an expression of creativity and joy. I think that’s probably a major reason why it managed to live in the imagination of internet culture.
Q: Recently, you launched a Dancing Baby NFT collection. Can you tell us a bit about how this project came together and what the end result was like?
A: In March 2021, Vienna-based design boutique, HFA Studio approached us with the idea of minting the Dancing Baby as an NFT and to include our original Dancing Baby as part of an internationally diverse collection of reimaginings of what the Dancing Baby might mean today. So in February 2022, the original creators, Robert Lurye, John Chadwick and myself, digitally restored and re-rendered the Dancing Baby using state-of-the-art technology that’s now available in 3D Studio Max 2022. The HD digitally restored baby that resulted is, as I said before, what I think we’re the proudest of because it reveals the details of the Dancing Baby’s facial features and body shape with much more clarity and beauty.
We’re also pretty excited about the idea of putting the Dancing Baby in a more fine art context and inviting other artists from different parts of the world to reimagine it, which included Yuuki Morita from Japan, Serwah Attafuah from Australia, Niels and Vicki, AKA YONK from the Netherlands, Kreationsministern from Sweden, KidEight from England and Chris Torres — we were really lucky that he wanted to create a “Nyan Dancing Baby” as part of the collection. His contribution was particularly interesting ’cause it’s kind of a meta-meme of a meme [laughs].
TGIF and a huge thank you to @Cryptopathic for collecting my piece for 2 ETH! Probably my most exciting crossover yet. I hope Nyan Baby brings you luck through the cosmos ✨🌈👶🏻 pic.twitter.com/wd4EBh3o0L
— ☆Chris☆ (@PRguitarman) May 13, 2022
Q: Reflecting on the last 26 years, how do you want Dancing Baby to be remembered in the halls of internet culture history since it’s commonly considered the first “internet meme” by many?
A: Well, I hope Dancing Baby is remembered for the role it played at the very start of social media and the internet, and I hope Dancing Baby is recalled as a symbol of our hopes and dreams of what internet culture might become in the future. So, even now, we have all these problems, but I’m hopeful that we’ll solve them. Internet culture has made the world a much smaller place where we can all communicate better, as we’re communicating now, so there’s a lot of wonderful potential there, and I think once some of the problems are solved, we have a lot to look forward to.
Q: Thanks again, Michael. Anything in closing you’d like to mention before we go?
A: Thank you for your interest in Dancing Baby and the digitally restored version. I now have my own indie computer game company, which I call Subliminal Fringe, so you can see my work on subliminalfringe.com, and I’m happy to share that.
One funny story that I don’t think I mentioned before is the mere fact that the Dancing Baby sample file that we’ve been talking about was created 26 years ago. The fact that I was able to load that 26-year-old file in 3D Studio Max 2022 and it ran, and all the software worked, was just astounding. It was a miracle. If that miracle hadn’t happened, we might not be having this conversation [laughs].