The Rise of Mo Cap in Feature Film Development

30 Jan

By Comic Relief

As suggested in previous articles at LIH, the varied art of animation is here to stay.  Yet why is this realization so difficult to make, discern, or recognize?  Because without surveying the past, or looking behind the scenes, it can be difficult to establish how integral to Hollywood feature film production animation has been.  Long before any real distinctions were accepted between live action and animation, innovations in content development and camera technology like that of the phenakitstoscope, and later kinetoscope, praxinoscope etc. defined the maturing moving picture media [1]. Eventually camera technologies, color cinematography, sound, and editing would catch up to produce the entertainment product that we are so familiar with today.  

In terms of contemporary conventional wisdom, Hollywood media has lulled most of us into believing a completely false dichotomy. That false dichotomy is this: there is a production world of live action and there is a production world of animation.  Live action would be understood as the world of actual costumes, live sets, and living and breathing actors and the conventional movie cameras that record all the interactions of these traditional theatrical elements.  Different from live theatre it’s the arts of assembling, editing, and layering that create the dynamic films we see in the multiplexes.  Differently animations should be understood as being influenced by the arts of the storyboard (drawing, painting, composing and visual design, photography, etc.).  With this art form, there are no imaginative limits that would be defined by the limits or frailty of the physical human body and the laws of physics.

Different from discussions of CGI or Computer Graphic Imaging, which is the leading method for creating impossible action sequences, Motion Capture, or Mo Cap is production wise far more integrative.  We’ve seen this media develop over time drawing its inspiration from the live action rotoscoping animation method.   Some of the methods greatest products are littered throughout the history of animation; “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” being one of the oldest and the most famous, recently the “Take on me” video’ by the rock group “Ah Ha,” even more recently a series of Charles Schwab investment ads.  Relying on traced images, rotoscoping is influenced by the products of photography or film.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs click here to watch

 

Ah Ha’s “Take on me”

Charles Schwab Commercial

In a much more holistic manner, Mo cap takes its influence from the movements of three-dimensional live actors. Mo cap most often requires actors to wear outfits that feature small white balls.  Those balls allow technicians to track the actual movement of actors and save them for later film production and development.   Like its technological predecessor rotoscoping, stylistically in terms of fluid movement the effect produces a bizarrely realistic effect.

Because live action and animation have been aggressively moving toward each other for the last two decades less and less distinction between the two remains.  Proof of this was expressed at a recent roundtable discussion organized by the Hollywood Reporter.  Though the actual subject was animation, the panelists seemed to struggle to build a vocabulary to incorporate mo cap into an animation dialogue.  Why was the discussion so tense; because motion capture is a hybrid that neither supports nor allows the dichotomy that I discussed earlier?  What luminaries were on the panel?  Director of Kung Fu Panda 2, Jennifer Yuh Nelson the current box office queen of contemporary animation, John Lassiter the lead animator of Pixar, and Jamie Beard animation supervisor for DreamWorks’s recent film “Tin tin (most frequently associated with Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson), were all in attendance with a few other of this year’s Oscar nominees”

We’ve seen a lot of mo cap featuring the facial expressions of actor Andy Serkis in the “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” We have also seen it in recent Holiday movies like “Polar Express” (directed by Robert Zemeckis), “The Christmas Carol” featuring actor Jim Carrey, and now “Tin tin”.   The creation of these films has been one long workshop to perfect human representation and realism in mo cap feature film development.

Lord of the Rings

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Polar Express

A Christmas Carol

Tintin

Yet according to Pixar studio head John Lassiter [4], the goal of Animation is not about producing realism at all.   To build seamless and believable worlds, paraphrasing all of his comments, caricatured sets, movements, and behaviors build a consistency that helps audiences believe what they are seeing.  This is how the story remains essential and dominant despite frequently unique forms of environment, modeling, and character design.  For all of these reasons we can hear that there is a split (within professional circles) from traditional notions of mo cap being traditional animation.  If a community owned it, though it appears to be the product of the animation community, mo cap is fiercely protected and supported by the live action community instead.

Referencing the character Viper, Jennifer Yuh Nelson even confirms [5] within her latest film Kung Fu Panda 2 she and they had no intention of suggesting reality.  Being an animal with snake anatomy, the use of a human proxy would be impossible without “breaking every bone in their…” (The actor’s) “…body.”  She said that confirming that the reality-influenced aspects of mo cap really do push film audiences in new and unprecedented directions for live action not animation.

Confirming her assertion, possibly inaccurately Oscar nominated mo cap developer and animation supervisor Jamie Beard, confirms [6] Nelson and Lassiter’s claim by stating an obvious reflection that never-the less admits to some of the friction in the animation/live action communities. “It’s an evolution of animation… Motion-capture is able to be a kind of a storyboard, in a live-action sense, and then we, as animators, go in afterwards and work on that.”

All and all with the use of mo cap, audiences and production will be embarking on an entirely new day for feature film.  Given a new ability to create fantastic imagery we should expect less expression of separate live action and animation worlds.

Please join us for a discussion Tuesday 1/31/2012@7pE/12UTC

————————————————————————————

References:

[1] http://joshuamosley.com/UPenn/courses/Ani/AnimationHistory.html

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotoscoping

[3] http://www.cacs.louisiana.edu/labs/ecrg/vicon/index.html

[4] http://artisticwhim.com/blog/2006/02/motion-capture-acting-with-balls/

[5, 6, 7,] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/gallery/award-season-roundtable-series-animation-274757#1

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55 Responses to “The Rise of Mo Cap in Feature Film Development”

  1. littlebells January 30, 2012 at 1:20 PM #

    Great article CR. I didn’t know about all the different -scopes. What are they specifically? Also, I’m not a major fan of motion capture for cartoons. Trying to make cartoons look realistic just bugs me.

    • Comic Relief January 30, 2012 at 3:33 PM #

      LB,

      Though I have a correction, thanks a lot for the compliment. The film Tintin wasn’t nominated nor was Jamie Beard, Spielberg, or Jackson. I may have written this before the nominations were broadcast.

      It’s hard to answer all of the statements outside of the discussion but I will try below.

  2. Comic Relief January 30, 2012 at 3:34 PM #

    Absolutely an animation machine, here is the phenakitstoscope setup:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenakistoscope

    • Comic Relief January 30, 2012 at 3:35 PM #

      Here is the phenakitstoscope in action:

  3. Comic Relief January 30, 2012 at 3:36 PM #

    A kind of movie theatre in a box, here is the kinetoscope in use.

    • Comic Relief January 30, 2012 at 3:38 PM #

      A kind of movie theatre in a box, here is the kinetoscope image in action.

  4. Comic Relief January 30, 2012 at 3:44 PM #

    Another kind of animation machine, here is the Zoopraxiscope.

    • Comic Relief January 30, 2012 at 3:44 PM #

      Here is the Zoopraxiscope image in action.

  5. Comic Relief January 30, 2012 at 3:45 PM #

    Hopefully we can talk about the other statements later.

  6. littlebells January 30, 2012 at 4:29 PM #

    Thank you CR!!!! I appreciate the videos. Truly. 🙂

    • Comic Relief January 30, 2012 at 4:35 PM #

      you’re always welcome.

  7. Parisienne January 31, 2012 at 6:49 PM #

    Hi CR,

    I can’t stay long but wanted to comment. Awesome article. What are some drawbacks to using mo cap in modern film making today? For example, The Polar Express (which I love)Tom Hanks played more than one character. Do you feel that this hinders an actors performance in any way with all the technology they have to wear to make the film?

  8. Open Book January 31, 2012 at 7:13 PM #

    Hi Everyone-

    Great article CR!

    Oh! I found the roundtable u mentioned in your article.

    Here is the link for it.

    http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hollywood-reporter-animation-roundtable-tintin-275984

    • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:18 PM #

      Thanks OB. 🙂

      Now I think I will be able to go to sleep, much later of course.

  9. comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:16 PM #

    Hi Paris (and All),

    I’m not sure. I think it depends on the actor’s preferences. The upside is they can be projected doing so much more because they (their film character or image) can’t be physically hurt by all the fantastic things they are doing.

  10. littlebells January 31, 2012 at 7:24 PM #

    Hi everyone!

    I just woke up which means my brain is about five minutes behind. I may just be floating in and out, but I’ll do my best to keep up. 🙂

    • Open Book January 31, 2012 at 7:24 PM #

      Hi LB, CR & Paris!!

      Big Waves..

    • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:26 PM #

      Hi LB,

      I’ll keep you awake; I’m about answer one of your left over questions from yesterday. Just bare with me…..

      • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:34 PM #

        LB: “Also, I’m not a major fan of motion capture for cartoons. Trying to make cartoons look realistic just bugs me.”

        I have no preference, but I’m sure Lassiter and Nelson want to blow you a giant kiss.

        • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:36 PM #

          ….regardless of the fact that the “cartoons” statement probably provoked a few mild strokes. 🙂

          • littlebells January 31, 2012 at 7:39 PM #

            then I will replace it with “animation”. 🙂

            • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:41 PM #

              Lb,

              In regard to the whole discussion, do you think their anxiety is merited?

  11. Open Book January 31, 2012 at 7:24 PM #

    CR-

    What did u think of this roundtable discussion?

    • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:29 PM #

      I don’t mean to over presume, but it’s hard not notice how tender the THR discussion actually was. It might be mean to call the discussion a “turf war”, but I doubt I was the only one who read it that way.

      • littlebells January 31, 2012 at 7:40 PM #

        I loved reading it and wish I could have been there to ask them questions as well. As my fingers now catch up to my noodle, I have lots of questions for you CR!

        • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:43 PM #

          LOL. Now I’m scared; but waiting with baited breath.

          • Littlebells January 31, 2012 at 8:01 PM #

            ok, in no particular order:

            1) Miller talked about using 3D to add to the story telling and not use it just because it’s there. Are there any animated films that you fell have abused 3D or should have just left 2D?

            2) What do you think of “pop-cultural references and topical humor” in animation? Do you think there is a place and a time?

            3) What are your thoughts on R-rated animation/mo-cap? Is it necessary?

            4) do you happen to know what the percentage of animated films to live action are put out (roughly) each year?

            I’m sure I have more…but I’ll just let you handle these for a while. 🙂

            • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 8:06 PM #

              …see here we go. Though extremely thought provoking; your multidimentsional questions usually mean I have a lot of work to do.

              This will take a minute…be right back.

              • Littlebells January 31, 2012 at 8:12 PM #

                Oh don’t worry about asking them now!!! Take your time and come back to them when you want. 🙂

              • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 8:14 PM #

                LB,
                “Miller talked about using 3D to add to the story telling and not use it just because it’s there. Are there any animated films that you fell have abused 3D or should have just left 2D?”

                I really don’t think Hollywood will be sending Lucas any rewards for Jar jar. I’m wondering whether Lucas did “Red Tails” to make up for the stereo typical criticism he received for the character.

                • Open Book January 31, 2012 at 8:21 PM #

                  LOL!! Hmmm! I wonder..

                  • Littlebells January 31, 2012 at 8:25 PM #

                    I FRIGGIN’ HATED JAR JAR!!!! HAAAAAAAAAAAATED!!! OMG!!! Why did you have to bring him up. My night is ruined! 🙂

                    • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 8:31 PM #

                      HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

                      I knew we were secret members of the same society.

                • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 8:29 PM #

                  A lot of people loved this movie but I found “Alice in Wonderland” over done in so many ways. I was satisfied with the 2D version. A film of Tim Burton; he started his career and training as an animator.

      • Open Book January 31, 2012 at 7:42 PM #

        I thought it was a turf war. I think animation has come along way and the traditionalist want to respect the craft. Yet, there is something to be said in seeing animated wolves in live action or 3-D in Hugo. How are audiences suppose to appreciate the tradition yet respect progress? If we like 3-D is that somehow dihonoring animation?

        • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:47 PM #

          OB,

          do you think these animators are afraid that Mo cap will make them more into technicians than artists?

          • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 8:00 PM #

            I’m beginning to wonder whether the animation heads of the panel feels this sort of use of CGI, which Mo cap can improve, is a perversion of the art form. I doubt any human was present in any of the iron man footage.

          • Open Book January 31, 2012 at 8:19 PM #

            Well I think the more u get into Mo-Cap I fear u loose human emotion and spontinuity. I fear as technicians we want to make everything perfect. As artist we observe society now in the moment and document all it’s faults and achievments. I fear too much technique will dilute our real social experiences. Does that makes sense?

            • Littlebells January 31, 2012 at 8:28 PM #

              Yes, absolutely and that was going to be another question of mine…I don’t ever want real, living, breathing humans are replaced with Mo-Cap. Yes, it has come a long way and yes it still will continue to improve, but there is something about the actual human artist that cannot be captured with animation. I think Mo-Cap is enjoyable but not relatable.

              • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 8:36 PM #

                OB & LB,

                This is excellent food for thought.

                One day I want to say that.

              • Open Book January 31, 2012 at 8:55 PM #

                ITA! LB!!

  12. comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:31 PM #

    Am I wrong that the academy may have had the last word on whether Mo cap is animation or not? In the category it was expected to win in; they gave nothing to Tintin.

  13. ozzie20 January 31, 2012 at 7:55 PM #

    Hi all!

    Very interesting article CR! I’ve always wanted to know more about this topic! 🙂

    • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 7:56 PM #

      Hi Ozzie.

      I felt the same way.

    • Open Book January 31, 2012 at 8:20 PM #

      Hi Ozzie!!

  14. Littlebells January 31, 2012 at 8:30 PM #

    Ladies and gentleman,

    I need to go for the evening. I will come back and check in tomorrow. Thank you for a wonderful discussion and article. CR you have really helped me learn so much. I may not be able to teach anyone what I’ve learned, but be rest assured, it’s lodged somewhere in this noggin and I can be that random trivia gal at parties. 🙂

    • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 8:34 PM #

      Bye LB.

      …still working on those questions.

      See you soon

    • Open Book January 31, 2012 at 8:46 PM #

      Goodnight LB!!

  15. comic relief January 31, 2012 at 8:41 PM #

    LB,

    “What do you think of “pop-cultural references and topical humor” in animation? Do you think there is a place and a time?”

    I’m not sure I understand your question.

  16. Open Book January 31, 2012 at 8:54 PM #

    CR & Oz!

    I’m headed out as well. I will come back and respond tomorrow. Great! Great! discussion I learned alot.

    • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 9:01 PM #

      Bye OB.

      Thanks for the assist.

  17. comic relief January 31, 2012 at 8:57 PM #

    “What are your thoughts on R-rated animation/mo-cap? Is it necessary?”

    WARNING. DON’T WATCH IF YOU ARE FEELING LIGHT-HEADED. WARNING.

    This isn’t mo cap, it’s another example of rotoscoping. But to be honest, I think this why animation was dead for most of the 1980’s. Films like this have largely disappeared because sex never sells as much as some believe. And yeah that’s a young Brad Pitt in some of those scenes.

    • comic relief January 31, 2012 at 9:00 PM #

      I’m a fan of the way “A Dangerous Method” and likely “Shame” have handled adult subject matter. So no, I don’t think it is necessary.

  18. comic relief January 31, 2012 at 9:03 PM #

    4) “do you happen to know what the percentage of animated films to live action are put out (roughly) each year?”

    I have no idea; where is Lurker when you need her?

  19. comic relief January 31, 2012 at 9:10 PM #

    Obviously we will hear more about this issue in the future.

    Yet, given movies like (Cool World above) I can definitely understand why the Power players of animation want to police the precinct to make sure nothing bad gets out of hand in the animation universe. What do you think?

    Thanks for coming everyone.

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