Spielberg on Mocap

Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg at work on The Adventures of Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn 01

In a follow-up to a front page story in the Los Angeles Times entitled “’Avatar’ stirs an animated actors debate in Hollywood,” the paper’s Rachel Abramowitz posted this interview with Steven Spielberg on his use of motion capture in his The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which utilizes the same technology James Cameron did in Avatar. The comments of Spielberg, who has played an important role in nurturing the current animation renaissance, are indicative of why mocap has proven so attractive to live-action directors:

For the director … the new experience was transporting.

“I just adored it,“ he says. “It made me more like a painter than ever before. I got a chance to do so many jobs that I don’t often do as a director. You get to paint with this device that puts you into a virtual world, and allows you to make your shots and block all the actors with a small hand-held device only three times as large as an Xbox game controller.”

With that small monitor, Spielberg could look down and watch what the actors were doing — in real time — on a screen that showed them in the film universe. Working on the motion-capture stage — which is called the volume  — Spielberg was routinely dazzled by the liberating artistic value of the new science.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa & Bolt

Madagascar: Escape 2 AfricaI am a little late in reporting my thoughts on Madagascar: Escape to Africa, the new DreamWorks Animation movie directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, and Bolt, the new stereo 3D film directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams. Madagascar 2, which continues the screwball capers of the original, seems much the better of the pair; the DreamWorks Animation team, under Jeffrey Katzenberg, seem to have gotten their comic formula down pat and now seem able to rattle off the visual and verbal gags like clockwork. I don’t know how much longer they can keep it up without getting tired, but so far they’re doing OK.

BoltBolt, however, tends to totter around a rather weak premise (a movie star dog who lives in a Truman Show/Buzz Lightyearlike cocoon escapes into real world), which is almost rescued by a good sense of pace and its use of stereo 3D. Like Meet the Robinsons, it use of 3D is much superior to the likes Beowulf and Journey to the Center of the Earth, which seemed to have taken their cue from the cheap stereoscopic effects that made Bwana Devil so popular in 1952. Instead, Bolt manages to avoid throwing things things at the camera and uses the technology to evoke some very credible environments—I was especially impressed with its recreation of the streets of New York and Los Angeles. If the promised flood of stereo movies from DreamWorks and Pixar follows Disney’s lead in this matter, we’ll all be better off.

Speaking of art direction, Madagascar 2, like Kung Fu Panda, uses an extremely rich and detailed tapestry almost unimaginable in the days of 2D animation. At least it was until digital ink and paint came along, which did away with the limitations of the camera stand. (Basically, 2D animators were limited by the size of animation cels, which usually could not be more than 16 field, or 16½ inches wide and 12½ inches high.) This enabled films like The Lion King to easily employ much more detailed imagery than previously thought possible.

The use of CGI further enabled 2D artists to expand their visual horizons. This can be seen in the trompe l’oeil effects used on the periphery of DreamWorks’ Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and in the spectacle of Ron Clements and John Musker’s underrated Treasure Planet. Thus, the visual virtuosity on display of late in the films of DreamWorks and Pixar can be seen as part of the continuing exploration by animation artists of the still new possibilities offered by animation’s digital revolution.

Motion Capture Marches On

Digital motion capture using laser scanning technology.New Scientist reports, “digital motion capture could soon be within reach of low-budget film makers thanks to new software that records movement without using markers.” The system, developed at Stanford University, in California, and the Max-Planck Institute Informatik in Saarbrücken, Germany, allows for what they say is a “3D digital clone” of the actor using a laser scanner. avoiding the use use of body markers or special suits; it also allows the software to capture not only body movement, but everything from facial expressions to clothing. (See demonstration image above and video below.)

This sort of advance seems inevitable and can only add to the anguish felt by many in animation, who as one of my students, Paul Krause, pointed out, seems to reduce animation to a postproduction process. It is also the type of advance that might further encourage live-action filmmakers to move into animation.

The problem with motion capture animation, as with rotoscoping, is not so much the process, but how it is used. Despite all the hype, raw mocap data is rarely useful for animated films, as is and it often requires the assistance of a skilled animator to make it useful; it is this extra step that generally inflates the cost of motion capture, just as it inflates the cost of rotoscoping. (Remember, Max Fleischer gave up the original rotoscoped version of Koko the Clown in 1925 in favor of a more cartoony one because of cost.) While the new process is certainly an interesting breakthrough, it really does not change the basic role that mocap will play for the immediate future, except for perhaps making it somewhat less expensive and perhaps less complicated. The new approach will certainly be welcomed by those who use mocap for video games and scientific purposes, as well as those in visual effects.

In the meantime, go here for a higher resolution, downloadable copy of the video and a preprint of the paper the developers will be presenting at the August SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles.