×

Motion pictures

Motion capture gains respect among f/x wizards

After over a decade of a lot of hype and little respect, the academic-sounding animation technique known as motion-capture may finally be ready for primetime.

“Mo-cap,” as many of its proponents are fond of calling it, has been put to use in some high-profile projects in the past two years – this summer’s “Final Fantasy” and “The Mummy Returns,” 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode 1,” the upcoming sequel and the next two installments of “The Matrix.”

As with just about any new digital technology – computer generated images for film, streaming media on the Web or wireless communications – the vastly increased power of computers has transformed mo-cap from niche player to the mainstream. In this case, from a version of cheap rotoscoping to a real-time, high-definition film tool.

“It has become a new form,” says Jeff Light, motion capture supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic. “It won’t replace ‘Toy Story’-type technology or live-action mind you, but motion-capture based projects will become a film genre of its own.”

The technology is a process of capturing the movement of a real person (or animal or object) in a defined performance space and mapping it onto a computer generated image.

Rotoscoping is a decades-old animation technique where artists draw and paint over a filmed human performance frame-by-frame as in Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 “Lord of the Rings.” It is much more expensive and time consuming than mo-cap.

The trade-off so far has been that rotoscoping looked better. That has changed.

Among other things, the tracking hardware and processing software is accurate enough now to capture subtleties of movement not possible five years ago.

“Depending on the power of the computer, one can achieve near-realism with motion-capture,” says Dr. Wayne Carlson, professor of design technology at Ohio State University. The acad’s advanced computing center for arts and design has been at the forefront of mo-cap since its inception.

Former student Light recently returned to his alma mater to capture a performance of legendary French mime artist Marcel Marceau. Now that the original heavy mo-cap suits and wires have been replaced with light-weight wireless gear, mapping 77-year-old Marceau’s moves for posterity was not a problem.

“The equipment is at least five times more accurate than it was in the late 1990s,” Light says. In some cases, depending on the number of cameras used and the volume of performance space (the smaller, the more accurate) that level of precision is increased ten-fold.

It’s not just juggernauts like ILM that are able to deliver high-end product for the film biz.

Two-year-old, Los Angeles-based Spectrum Studios may not exactly be Skywalker Ranch but it is playing with the big boys near Marina del Rey. Among other things, Spectrum is in the middle of generating images and data to be used in “Matrix 2” and “Matrix 3.”

Where once a motion capture stage could only be eight feet by eight feet with four or five cameras, Spectrum’s stage is half the size of a basketball court, ringed with 28 cameras.

Recently company computer boffins and animators managed to capture the performance of 17 actors simultaneously, a feat hitherto impossible.

“Our capabilities have tripled in the past eight months,” says Stephen Brain, Spectrum’s chief operating officer.

At a recent demonstration, animators were able to capture a performance of two martial artists and produce an animated version of it in minutes.

“The road blocks are gone,” says Susan Van Baerle, a Minneapolis-based animation consultant. “Not only has the technology improved drastically so has the skill-level of the people using it.”

That, say the experts, will change yet again come this fall.

With existing systems, the analog signals from its cameras have to be converted to digital files. Santa Rosa-Motion Analysis Corp. plans to unveil a new system that’s digital from image capture to image rendering.

“It will eliminate the need for a lot of costly hardware,” Brain says.

Popular on Variety

More Digital

  • MINDHUNTER

    Netflix's Podcast Slate 'Deepens' Space Around Original Content, Programmers Say

    It should come as no surprise that, in its quest to become a full-blown entertainment ecosystem, Netflix has built a roster of podcast programming to complement its scores or original series and films. The programs recruit top talent and hosts to hang out and talk about the streaming giant’s TV and film content. It’s a [...]

  • Netflix-logo-N-icon

    Netflix Is Testing Human-Curated 'Collections'

    Netflix, a company powered by the strategic use of data, relies on artificial intelligence to suggest new content that its streaming customers are likely to be interested in. Now it’s looking to potentially add a human touch: The company has launched a limited-scale test of “Collections,” a new feature that presents groups of movies and [...]

  • wolves in the walls emmy

    Neil Gaiman VR Experience 'Wolves in the Walls' Wins Primetime Emmy

    “Wolves in the Walls,” the virtual reality (VR) experience based on Neil Gaiman’s children’s book by the same name, has been awarded with a Primetime Emmy for outstanding innovation in interactive media. The experience has been produced by San Francisco-based immersive entertainment startup Fable, which puts a big effort on making the viewer a participating [...]

  • The Void San Francisco

    The Void Teams Up With Sony Pictures for New Location-Based VR Experience

    James Murdoch-backed virtual reality (VR) startup The Void has teamed up with Sony Pictures Virtual reality to produce a new location-based VR experience, according to Curtis Hickman, the startup’s chief creative officer. Hickman revealed the partnership in a conversation with Variety this week, during which he also outlined plans to bring more original IP to [...]

  • US President Donald J. Trump speaks

    Apple Stock Down 4.6% After Trump ‘Orders’ Companies to Leave China

    Apple’s share price was down around 4.6% Friday at the close of the market, to $202.64 per share, after President Trump took to Twitter to “order” U.S. companies to leave China. The slide came amid a market-wide sell-off, with the NASDAQ sliding 3%, and the Dow dropping 623 points. Trump’s edict was a response to [...]

  • Former head of CAA China Peter

    Peter Loehr to Spearhead Asia Expansion of Genies Avatar Venture (EXCLUSIVE)

    Peter Loehr, the former head of CAA in China, and seasoned music executive John Possman have been tapped by digital avatar company Genies to lead its expansion into Asia. The company’s proprietary avatar technology allows users to express ideas, thoughts and feelings in a different way from text, audio and video. Within the app and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content