Oh Motion Capture, What Art Thou?


These are wonderful times for animation bloggers, what with all the controversy raging about whether or not motion capture/performance capture is or is not animation. I have long said that it is, but would like to amplify my feelings a bit on the matter. The cause for this is a recent posting from the ever thoughtful Mark Mayerson, who criticizes Cartoon Brew’s Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi’s acceptance of the technique as animation; Mayerson argues that it is a postproduction technique, and thus should not and cannot be considered animation (which, he says, is a production technique).  He concludes by saying:

I’ve written extensively on how fragmented the process of making an animated film is and how so many of the acting decisions are made before the animator starts work. The character designs, the storyboard and the voice performance all make acting decisions that constrain the animator’s interpretation. There is no question that motion capture is yet another constraint, probably larger than all the others. To insist that Avatar is an animated film is to marginalize animators even more than they are in what are generally considered animated films. Is this the direction we want things to go? Better to agree with James Cameron [that it’s not animation] and focus our attention on films where animators create, not enhance, performances.

His argument is not a new one and I’m sure that any number of animators feel that motion capture work demeans them because it reduces the animation to a postproduction process. And similar arguments have long been lodged against rotoscoping. But if we take an historical approach, which I think can be useful, then the evidence is strongly in favor of both rotoscoping and motion capture being animation.

Remember, Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope in 1915 as a way to create more fluid animation; and though I have not done much research in this area, I would be surprised if anyone could find comments by any other animation pioneer that derided the process as being something other than animation. It is said that early animators struggled to have their characters move in a realistic manner, which arguably created an opening for Fleischer’s invention.

One of the earliest examples of motion capture used in lieu of animation in a mainstream production was the Brilliance commercial Robert Abel and Associates did in 1984 for the Canned Food Information Council. In the film describing its production posted above, it is clearly labeled as an animation process. And it should be noted that the company used the technique at a time when computer animation seemed incapable of easily producing realistic human movement.

Bill Kroyer, recalled in an interview with me that,

When we did Tron, all you could do is move one object, like a light cycle, and it had one thing on top, like a moving turret as in a tank. Having multiple movements was a big deal, because nobody had really written software which structures movement in a hierarchy; so when you move the shoulder, it moves the elbow, the wrist and the fingers; then you can move the elbow and it moves the wrist.

At Digital Productions, [in 1984] they wrote a program that created a hierarchy. They set up this hierarchy of a human body, but the objects were mere blocks — the head was a square and the torso was a kind of a little pyramid — but at least it had all the joints; it had a neck, back, hip, knee and everything. Then they gave me this block woman as we called her and said, “Just see if you can make it move.” And I just started creating key frames and animating; I started with the center of gravity and the hips, then I kept adding on and adding on and created this dance scene.

In other words, Robert Abel, one of the pioneers of computer animation, not having the technology available to Digital Productions (or perhaps feeling it was inadequate) turned to motion capture in much the same way that Max Fleischer turned to rotoscoping.

Thanks to Amanda Kieffer.

Author: Harvey Deneroff

Harvey Deneroff is a Los Angeles-based independent animation and film scholar specializing in labor history. He formerly taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was editor of Animation Magazine, Animation World Magazine, and Graiffit (published by ASIFA-Hollywood). He is the founder and past president of the Society for Animation Studies.

3 thoughts on “Oh Motion Capture, What Art Thou?”

  1. One of my problems with motion capture is that it does the opposite of what it is supposed to do, which is to transfer real human movement to a digital character. If you were to take a real close look at the movement of mocap characters, and I mean a REAL CLOSE look, they move robotic, stiff, weightless, and/or like puppet being pulled by strings. Even in Avatar, which I would admit had the best mocap I’ve seen, looked very weightless and unnatural. In comparison to a key framed animated film like Ratatouille, the characters move natural and have real weight and is more believable. The animator brought out the personality and emotion through a developmental process. Key frame animation is an illusion of life. Mocap is a copy. Like I said before the motion looks odd. Why do you think PIXAR made sure to add in the credits of Ratatouille that the film was 100% Key Frame Animation? Because it was and is animation. Motion capture is not!

  2. is it so important if it’s called “animation” or not? mocap is just a technique to make virtual characters move.

    to work with mocap-data has one or two things in common with animating (in the classical sense) – it has it’s advantages an it’s disadvantages… and it’s a (relatively) new field where animators eventually can get jobs cause they already know a lot about the issues which arise when shots are done with mocap – i don’t say that the animators like this jobs but well… one has to feed the kids.

    used the right way mocap can help making breathtaking films. that all doesn’t mean i wanna miss films like ratatouille – but does anyone think that mocap ever will replace animation? sure not! so what’s all this “is it or is it not animation” about? it’s mocap!

  3. Agree with jobomat, and really find it hard to compare apples to oranges. When looking at different animation techniques one has different expectations regarding realism of movement and character appearance. Think sand animation vs oil on glass vs claymation vs traditional puppetry vs scratch on film. All are animation techniques, every one of them has a set of unique qualities which make it incredible in some ways and limited in others. Cel animation and computer animation that follows cel traditions of exaggeration, squash and stretch, etc aim at expressiveness. Motion capture productions (without which films like Avatar or Lord of the Rings would not be possible) set goal to create massive realistic movement. I find motion capture to be closer to traditional puppetry than cel animation and wish there would be more films featuring experimental use of motion capture which has infinite possibilities in terms of setting up virtual rigs driven by human movement.

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