Monday, March 1, 2010

Motion Capture: Reality Enhanced

Guest Blogger:
Brian Tyler Wright
Technician, Columbia College faculty

Brian Wright works as the technician in the Motion Capture Studio which is one of the features of the new Media Production Center at Columbia College Chicago. This blog post walks us through a day with Brian. More information about the Media Production Center can be found at

I sneak into the studio early in the morning. It’s still silent, before the buzz of the day starts. The heavy concrete walls are cool and distant in the darkness before the snap-flicker of the studio lights reveal them as the benign monoliths they are. A spider’s web of cables crawls along the floor, climbing like cybernetic ivy to the dozen cameras mounted high above my head. Their lens peers around my studio from above missing nothing.  

Every day in my motion capture studio starts in quiet mediation. It’s a ritual practiced alone to perfection in the red glow of the infra-red lights. The cameras must be warmed up, the suits laid out, and markers checked for imperfections. Calibration of the system is a quiet dance through the capture volume, waving a wand with three reflective balls. I await judgment. Did I do well enough this time, or must I try again?  

Silence is broken as the door slams open and I hear the jovial banter of the actors arriving for the shoot along with the directors, students, and hangers-on. They bring warmth and life to an otherwise stark space. It’s time to review and prioritize what they’d like to do today. Each actor must don a spandex suit and submit to having forty-two rubber markers covered in reflective tape strewn over their body. It looks random at first, but there is order in the chaos; each marker defines how we will track every body part. The only thing left is to teach the machine to read. 

The capture itself is a synergistic process blending the artistic with the technical. The eye of the director, the performance of your actors, and the requirements to make everything work to animate later all combine to make something new. Most actors are awkward and stilted at first in fronts of the multitude of cameras and uncomfortably revealing suit. The director must calm them and coach them to a natural, repeatable performance. Even the best performances can be rendered naught by technical gremlins; we always shoot at least twice to ensure that we get what we need. The motion capture techs must always push the agenda of what is possible or efficient to capture in their space. Certain motions, though extremely similar to the naked eye, can differ by many times in the time and complexity when it comes to cleaning the data. It’s a tug-a-war to come to a agreeable medium. 

When the day of the shoot is done, the other half of the work begins. Its reality augmented for me. I strive to capture events as they should have been. The actor provides a good base for realistic motion. The animator provides vision and a Hollywood shine to what might otherwise be a mundane move. Harder, stronger, faster, it’s all possible once you start editing. Do you need to jump 20 ft into the air? No problem. Did your actor not quite hit all there poses? No problem. You get to combine the reality of a live person with the fantasy of a purely animated character. 

Motion capture is an interesting blend of film and animation. I like to think that it combines some of the best qualities of each. It’s flexible in moving between games and feature film without much adaptation. Its’ diverse live studio and computer based formats provide a vital change of pace to keep from getting burned out on the same workflow everyday.

Brian Wright worked for 13 years in the games industry. He currently works for Columbia College Chicago as the Technician for the Media Production Center. He also teaches the Motion Capture 1 classes at Columbia College Chicago.

All images by Brian Tyler Wright

1 comment:

  1. How do i get into motion capture? Besides going to a private art school. I was thinking i can go in to one of the mocap session and provide martial arts animations and go from there. I want to become a animator both mocap and animating by hand.