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.

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Well, the wait is over and, whether one likes it or not, Avatar looks like the game changer that James Cameron, Jeffrey Katzenberg and other promoters of 3D movies said it would be, quieting critics who said the technology would never really work in live action. It also looks like it will be the film which legitimatizes motion/performance capture, especially as a way for live-action directors to enter the wonderful world animation (though sometimes without necessarily admitting it’s animation). It also helps that, despite its occasionally comical mixture of Star Wars and FernGully, it’s a pretty good movie.

As I wrote a year ago, “I suspect 3D will not go away anytime soon; the question , I believe, is whether or not it will go beyond being a niche market.” Avatar’s success certainly solidifies 3D’s place in the cinematic mainstream, though calling it a live action is problematic. (In this regard, do read Brad Brevet’s “Should ‘Avatar’ Be Considered for Best Animated Oscar?” on RopeofSilicon.com here and Steve Hulett’s follow-up comments on The Animation Guild blog here.) Thus, Kristin Thompson’s comments on Beowulf that “It’s still fiendishly difficult and expensive to shoot live action material in digital 3-D, so most projects are animated,” perhaps still seems to hold.

In regards to his use of motion capture, Cameron has been especially boastful about how he has overcome the last obstacle to the technology’s acceptance, that of being able to reproduce not only the reference actor’s bodily actions, but their exact facial expressions as well. As a result we are left with the spectacle of critics gushing over how, for example, Sigorney Weaver’s avatar face looks just like Sigorney Weaver’s actual face (see comparison below). This, as Brevet points out, is something that animators have been doing since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (actually since Otto Messmer’s pre-Felix the Cat work on Charlie Chaplin cartoons).

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Rodney Dangerfield posess with his animated alter ego

Also, the film really does not fully address the problem of the uncanny valley, as the mocap characters are not meant to be realistic humans, but highly stylized humanoids; a better test would be to see how Cameron would do on a follow-up to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Cameron also boasts that his work on performance capture technology will eventually lead it to becoming more commonplace and cheaper. I suppose so, but less expensive approaches already exists. For instance, director Neill Blomkamp in an interview about his District 9 with Todd Gilchrist notes:

Pretty much in any shot with an alien interacting with a human, which 99 percent is Christopher interacting with Wikus, there was Jason Cope, who was the actor who plays Christopher and who also plays all of the other aliens in the film. He was always on set in a lycra, light-reflective suit, and he would be interacting with Sharlto. It was not performance capture from a data-recording standpoint; like, there were no motion-capture cameras around. But once our live-action camera was tracked, the animators at Image Engine would sort of trace-animate the motion of Jason, almost literally like tracing him. That rotomation would become the essence of the performance of this digital creature, and then they would paint Jason out and put the digital one in, and you would have both performances and they would both be real and they would both be interacting with one another. It’s just very difficult and very expensive to paint someone out of a moving-camera [image] and then replace them with something, but we factored that in.

And despite District 9’s $30 million budget, it doesn’t suffer much in comparison with Avatar and, I would argue, is the better film.

District 9

The comparison between the two films is also interesting in that Blomkamp’s training and experience was an animator and special effects artist, while Cameron’s was not. (True, Cameron can draw, a skill which is often considered the holy grail of qualifications to becoming an animation artist or special effects artist, he never had any particular training in either craft.)

My 3D Headache

RealD 3D Glasses

Yesterday, tired of Atlanta’s continuing lack of Imax theaters showing Hollywood fare, my wife and I drove to the AMC Southlake 24, in Morrow (about a 30 minutes away) to see Avatar. The theater complex is a rather comfortable oasis in the midst of a rather desolate shopping complex and largely enjoyed the movie; but right now I don’t want to focus on the movie itself, but on the fact that about two hours into the film I began to get a headache on both sides of my head. Reports of headaches while watching 3D films are certainly nothing new or strange, but, for someone who has been seeing stereoscopic films without incident since 1952 (yes, I’m old enough to have seen Bwana Devil when it first came out), this really caught me by surprise.

I suppose there are several valid explanations for my what happened, including the fact I never before sat through a 3D movie over two hours long, or saw a feature-length 3D Imax film, or age was finally catching up with me, or some combination of these or other factors. And attempts to use the techniques to avoid 3D headaches discussed on Shadowlocked did not seem to help left me fearing my 3D moviegoing days might be numbered.

However, in talking this over with my wife, she suggested that my headache came from the glasses applying too much pressure on my head muscles. She herself felt uncomfortable during the show and was able to relieve her discomfort by moving her glasses into a more comfortable position. I’m not sure if this explanation is valid or not, but the RealD 3D glasses the Southlake used were noticeably different from any I used before; and though I was not conscious of any added pressure to my head, it’s not something I can rule out.  And even if it is valid, I doubt it explains all reports of headaches while viewing 3D movies.