Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mo Cap Puppetry

Variety details the Henson Company's real-time c.g. facility:

Whereas a lot of animation companies use motion capture to capture precisely what an actor does, we’re somewhere in the middle," explains Brian Henson, co-CEO of the Jim Henson Co. and son of the famed Muppets creator. "We’re always working through some kind of technical interface."

... [T]he Henson Digital Puppetry Studio ... allows the company’s pros to translate their performances into broadcast-quality 3-D animation in real-time, resulting in shows such as "Sid the Science Kid."

At Henson’s Hollywood-based HQ, tucked behind the Kermit statue, the team has transformed a soundstage into a 40-foot-by-60-foot motion capture performance space or "volume." It takes two puppeteers acting in synch to create a character’s "live performance"; one dons a custom exoskeleton and acts out body movements onstage, while the second controls the CG head and face from a separate booth on the sidelines ...

Close to thirty years ago, the early Disney Channel was cranking out Winnie the Pooh half-hours with actors in cloth suits in front of chroma key sets on a small stage in Hollywood. They produced a show every two or three days, and they were extremely cost effective (read "cheap.").

The Henson mo-cap studio is, I think, a descendant and cousin of that long ago operation: a streamlined method to get a type of animated children's show to the marketplace at a relatively low cost.

Motion capture has a place in theatrical features and television. It's proven, over the years, that it's a viable sub-set of the movie industry, but I would disagree with Variety about this:

Motion capture technology may still be new enough to intimidate actors and animators (with both groups terrified such technology could eventually render them obsolete) ...

Mo cap is what it's always been: digital rotoscope, the computerized grandchild of Out of the Inkwell and Gulliver's Travels.

Rotoscope didn't replace animators in 1939, and Motion Capture won't replace animators in 2009. Both technologies are tools, not art forms. Animation is an art form.


Anonymous said...

HDPS tries to give puppeteers the ability to animate fully articulated characters such as those in Sid the Science Kid, but fails because of the laughably unintuitive design. Youve got your arms in this exoskeleton, hands controlling joysticks with a bunch of other buttons, each controlling a different part of the face. Youre doing this while trying to act and do the voice. Meanwhile, someone entirely different is capturing the body animation on the mocap stage. The puppeteers are undoubtedly some of the greatest performers out there, but i think theyre severely stifled by the system. there are proven ways to mocap characters, both for facial and body. in their pursuit to make the animation feel puppet like, theyve only accomplished a look that is bizarre and unappealing.
if they want to keep creating these pseudo-animated shows, while maintaining a puppet like feel,
they should be doing one of two things.
1) simplify the characters to only have the level of articulation that a puppet would have. re-rig the hdps to have the same controls a real puppet has. puppets dont have to have the same level of articulation that a fully animated character has.
2) ditch HDPS, and hire some animators, in house, to animate them feel puppet like. this is going to get the best results.

Anonymous said...

I think that it's kind of pitiable that if it weren't for government-supported PBS, the Henson company would be out of business. Under the circumstances, maybe it should be.

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