Animation Filmmakers Who Like and Do Mocap

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.

Vibeke Sorenson 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.

John Clark Matthews in Up to No Good:  The Making of Papa No Good

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.”

Are New Oscar Rules for Mocap a Power Grab?

I’m writing this from Edinburgh, Scotland, where my wife and I have been enjoying a really wonderful Society for Animation Studies conference. A full report will follow when I get back home, but I can’t help responding to the Motion Picture Academy’s new rules for defining what is animation (see press release here), which states in part that,

a sentence regarding motion capture was added to clarify the definition of an animated film. The language now reads: “An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of greater than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.”

It was mentioned during one of the conference’s many discussions of motion capture and drew some incredulous responses from the packed room (the person reporting it wasn’t sure if it was correct), but a comment by Sheridan Institute of Technology’s Tony Tarantini made around this time about James Cameron’s assertion that there’s no animation in Avatar is worth reporting. He basically felt that at a time when animation is becoming the dominant mode of production, Cameron is try to take it [the field] away from animators.

In the paper my wife Vickie and I gave yesterday, we discussed how live-action directors, like Cameron, liked motion capture because it enabled them to do animation in a way similar to the way they film live-action (i.e., they direct actors instead of animators). For whatever reason, he does not want to see himself as an animation filmmaker and I suspect the new rules regarding motion capture were added in part to assuage people like him; it would also please Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky, as it would reduce possible future Oscar competition. (Needless to say, I feel motion capture is animation.)

In a discussion about the new rules at Cartoon Brew, a number of people felt that motion capture films could still be considered animation if the data was finished by animators frame-by-frame, while Ryan McCulloch asked whether this would disqualify Happy Feet, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature several years ago (I believe it was the same year that another mocap film, Monster House was also nominated)? And the ever sane Floyd Norman said, “This is only going to get crazier.”

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.