My March 9th posting on motion capture, “Oh Motion Capture, What Art Thou?,” elicited an interesting comment from Vita Berezina-Blackburn, an animation specialist at Ohio State University, who finds 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.
Her wish that more artists would use motion capture for experimentation is not often heard, but did ring a bell. Back in 1999, in doing a story for Animatoon on the University of Southern California’s Division of Animation and Digital Arts, I interviewed Vibeke Sorenson, its founding chair, who mentioned she first developed an interest in the area in graduate school, when computer animation was still in its infancy; she recalled, “the real time approach was important because of the roll of the spontaneous gesture in the act of creation.” And in the “Philosophy Statement” she wrote about the program she sent me said,
The computer provides unprecedented opportunities for data transformation, both in real-time and not in real-time. It allows animators to work with both 2 and 3-D animation, in real-time interactive virtual environments. They are a hybrid form of filmmaker, functioning at various times as directors, actors, cinematographers, and editors. Computers are transformative instruments providing vast new spaces and possibilities for animators.
Sorenson is now Chair of the School of Art, Design, and Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Berezina-Blackburn’s feeling that motion capture is a form of puppetry is also a view strongly held by John Clark Matthews, the award-winning puppet filmmaker (The Mouse and the Motorcycle trilogy, Frog and Toad are Friends, Mouse Soup, etc.), who I recently talked to about the topic. (I must note John and I are friends and in 1992 I presented a paper on his films, “Experiments in Style: the Animated Puppet Films of John Matthews,” at the Society for Animation Studies conference at CalArts.) When his studio went under in the mid-90s, he took a job as a computer animator with Sony Imageworks, where he was a lead/supervising animator on such films as Stuart Little (the design of the title character was based on the ones he did for The Mouse and the Motorcycle films) and Polar Express; he retired five years ago, but has not lost his interest in films and performance capture.
Before Polar Express, John experimented with motion capture at Sony Imageworks (samples of this work can be found here) and realized that “performance capture is nothing more than puppeteering.” As a puppeteer he is a big booster of the process and feels there is considerable room for creativity using the process.
(In commenting on the complaints animators had with Wes Anderson’s problems had with his decision to direct Fantastic Mr. Fox long distance, he feels it “is much better [using performance capture] than an animator trying to figure out what a director wants, especially when the director is not present.”