Thursday, June 01, 2006

Motion Capture? What's It Good For?

There was a good turnout Tuesday night for the Animation Guild's panel discussion about motion capture (the 21st Century's version of rotoscope). Guild board member Nathan Loofbourrow chaired a panel of motion capture veterans, and a lively discussion ensued... Jeff Light, a longtime mocap player at Industrial Light and Magic, recounted how ILM played with motion capture on the live-action film "Casper," and how George Lucas wanted it developed for his new trilogy of "Star Wars" films, then in development. Light related how the company looked at lots of different systems, finally settling on the Vicon system where performers could move around in a ten by twenty foot space. Vicon couldn't do facial motion, but since motion capture was needed for battle droids and crowd scenes, facial wasn't really necessary. What ILM required was actors who weren't tethered to a system, since they had to do falls and other acrobatic moves, and wires would pull loose and force multiple "takes" before the moves were inputted into the computer. (It was hard on a performer to do multiple falls and/or head bashes because the system didn't pick them up the first...or even third time.) Panelist Mariette Marinus worked on an animated CGI television show in South Africa that was on both a tight budget and tight schedule. She detailed how motion capture was both a time and money saver. The show needed to produce a half hour of animation per week and had only a few days to do the mocap, then a day or two for editorial, and then the production went on the air. While the quality wasn't at a theatrical level, motion capture did permit them to turn over a lot of animation quickly. Troy Saliba, the animation director of Sony/Columbia's upcoming "Monster House," told how the motion capture they used was deployed differently than it was on mocap pictures like "Final Fantasy" or "Polar Express." Because the characters in "Monster House" were much more stylized, the creators on the show had more flexibility with the animation. The rigs were designed from the ground up to support full animation -- full controls were available, and the motion capture data could be dialed on or off at any time. Troy said that motion capture on the characters' bodies got them 70% of the way there, but that doing faces was much more difficult (with mocap providing maybe 30% of the final animation). Troy related: "My background is feature animation, not mocap. When I came aboard, the director of the film said 'This is an animated movie with mocap side by side.'" Troy said that the kick-off for the shots was the mocap, but that it was basically used as reference in lots of instances. "Polar Express" had a complex facial system that it used, but on "Monster House," performances were caricatured. "We could amp up a pose if we needed to, and hand-key the facial moves." Mariette said that on the South African television show, they did facial tweaks after the motion capture was done, but time and budget were always a constraint. Jeff Light stated that knowing what the motion capture technology will do is a big advantage. He related how he directed motion capture performances on episodes I and II of "Star Wars," and having the ability to say "action" and "cut," along with knowing what would register well in the system was a huge benefit. The question came up about "performance" in a mocap feature. Is a given actor's performance in motion capture going to be rigidly adhered to, or is it going to simply serve as a reference for the animators? Is everything that an actor does pure "gold," or do animators and technicians have the leeway to alter it? The answer: it depends on the director, and the style of the show. Everyone agreed that mocap animation, even when "massaged," tends to have a different feel to it. Troy Saliba didn't think that mocap was a magic button, that it wasn't a guaranteed way to automatically get a peformance. He compared it to live-action reference in traditional animation. Troy didn't have a big problem with motion capture creatively, but he had some issues with how studios sold the perceived benefits of mocap to clients. Jeff Light remembered how, at ILM, they had an actor come in to deliver lines. He was hooked up to a motion capture system and gave a performance. Afterwards, an animator, using the performance as a reference, animated the same scene from scratch. And the animator's version was better, but Jeff thought that he couldn't have achieved his result (and certainly not that specific performance) if he hadn't had the original reference and motion capture to analyze. As several panelists pointed out, the strength of mocap is in capturing subtle movements that give a certain texture to the animation, and sometimes those movements are so subtle that they go unnoticed until digitally captured. Mariette Marinus related that in television, mocap can be a way to get footage out quickly and cheaply, but it doesn't look anywhere close to the quality of a feature film. Troy maintained that "Monster House" and other animated features weren't made cheaper or quicker because of motion capture. "You have 100, 150 people on a stage, and actors and technicians being paid for their work, then you have animators working on the footage further down the pipeline. At the end, it's just as expensive and time consuming as non-mocap animation."


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