Motion Capture Techniques

Written for SEO company Mutelabs

POETRY IN MOTION

- new motion capture techniques

Motion capture technology (or ‘mocap’) took another step forward in 2011 with the launch of the video game, L.A. Noire, a guns, girls, jazz and murder detective game heavily inspired by films such as L.A. Confidential. On release, the game leapt to the top of the UK video game charts but those sales were only partly for the multi-strand story and engaging gameplay. One of the game’s big draws (the biggest according some reviewers) is the characters’ life-like facial animation, previously only dreamed of in the gaming community.

So What Is Mocap?

Put simply, it’s any process by which motion is digitally recorded. Originally used for military applications (of course) and medical imaging, it has since found it’s way into the film and game worlds. One of the most famous uses in the last decade was the character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Andy Serkis acted the part wearing a suit bearing special markers or dots on key points of his body. Filmed by several cameras, the movement of  the markers was used by a computer to recreate the movement as a three dimensional animated character: Gollum.

How Has It Progressed?

Still sitting in the cinema, 2007’s Beowulf took things a step further by using motion capture (or ‘performance capture’) to film the whole thing and not just a single character. All of the acting was done on an empty set by people wearing suits and masks covered in capture dots. The result was the most realistic looking animation to date, enhanced by using well-known faces such as John Malkovich, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone (who was transformed into the tall, muscle-bound Nordic hero). But from a live-action point of view, the technique is a compromise, not least because the director chooses his shots after the take by exploring the recorded action in a virtual environment.

In the making of the more recent Avatar, that separation of director and actors was removed. By using goggles while filming, the actors could see a version of the virtual world as they did a scene, allowing them to interact more naturally with the animated environment. As for the director, he could see the whole scene on screen live, as the take unfolded. This allowed a much more interactive and creating-on-the-hoof approach. Everybody was still covered in dots though.

What About Gaming?

Traditionally, the quality of animation in video games has lagged behind films a little. Mainly because a film is a spectacle and a game is an interactive experience. When the characters on screen are controlled in realtime by the a player sat in front a screen wielding a gamepad, there’s a lot more going on processing-wise than just the graphics.

However, with L.A. Noire the games may have taken the technology a step further.

“We’re definitely blurring the lines now. I want this game to be the flashpoint where people start to think of games and film as being on the same level, because I’m confident they already are.” – Brendan McNamara, lead developer

The blurring of the lines is down to the ultra-realistic facial movement of the game’s characters. In fact, as a detective game, some of the player’s progress will depend on deciding who to trust and who not; now, part of that judgment can be based on facial expression – the capture is that good.

So how is it done? It’s down to a new technology called MotionScan from an Australian company, Depth Analysis. They use 32 HD cameras to capture the actor’s head from all angles, 360 degrees and more, which creates a finely-nuanced 3D representation viewable from any angle after a single take. One big difference to what has gone before is the complete absence of dot markers. No more looking like a negative print of a Dalmatian, it’s just an actor sitting in a chair being filmed in close up. For those of us that remember the 80s, this is what Max Headroom was trying to be.

L.A. Noire was the first video game to be featured at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival (remember those blurring lines?) but you don’t have to go to a festival to experience the latest in motion capture technology, you can sit in your gaming chair and play (and be astounded) in the considerable comfort of your own home.

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