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Why & How Animators are Utilizing Motion Capture Animation

“We’ve taken mo-cap and made it performance capture. You don’t just want the motion, you want the emotion and for that, you need a performance.”

Jon Landau, Film Producer

We say, “Lord of the Rings” odds are you think “My precious” (You heard it in your head, didn’t you?) - words were eerily spoken by the infamous Gollum. Of course, when you actually say it out loud, it doesn’t quite sound or looks the same. But that’s beside the point. 

the lord of the rings were made with motion capture animation

GIF by Reddit via Giphy

The point is that those animated facial expressions, the sneers, smiles, and the changes between his two personalities are all the real deal - real through Motion Capture animation.

The reason “My precious” is stuck in everyone’s brains is because the motion and emotion were real human motion and emotion translated into animation.

And that’s the goal of an animator - to have their animation glued into minds around the world. 

Technology has advanced to the point that minuscule muscle movements can be acted live captured through Motion Capture Animation (mo-cap or performance capture), and used in the animated/3D version of the character.

gollum was created with motion capture animation

Image from Nature Video via Youtube

Andy Serkis was not only the voice of Gollum but the actual live-captured character. Since then, motion capture animation has been used in various ways and is growing in popularity.

Because we at Business of Animation (BOA) are constantly aiming to help your animation business succeed, we’re making sure you know why animators are using motion capture animation by answering the following questions:

  • What is motion capture animation
  • What are the different techniques of motion capture animation
  • What kind of technology is needed for motion capture animation
  • Timeline of mocap’s development
  • Examples of memorable motion capture animation
  • Why freelance animators should use motion capture animation

So fasten your helmet because it’s time to rev into motion capture animation!

The Why and the How of Motion Capture Animation

What is Motion Capture Animation

motion capture animation rig example

Image by Tejaswinee Kelkar via Research Gate

In short, mo-cap is pretty much what it’s called - capturing the motions of the person/item/character being filmed and applying the captured motion to the animated character.

It’s not really about the actual footage as it is about the movement, the motions, and the emotions.

You can think of it as mapping out the character down to its tiniest detail. Almost like a very, very detailed stick-man - like very detailed. 

Motion capture animation literally maps out anything you as an animator feel is important to capture - and then continues to map it out as the figure moves.

After the “mapping” is done, technology is used to apply the motion to the computer-generated imagery (CGI) character or figure. And all of this helps to generate a realistic and believable character.

What are the Different Techniques of Motion Capture Animation

You basically have four different types of capturing motion, each with its pros and cons. Understanding what they are will further help you understand why animators use motion capture for animation.

We got some of our understanding from “What is Motion Capture, and How Does it Work in 2022?” and What is motion capture and how does it work?

Inertial: 

This method is probably the most cost-effective option, especially if you’re still getting to know motion capture animation or if you're still getting your business up and running. 

To really break this down, we’re first going to give some definitions before hurling a bunch of big words at you:

  • Inertia: Do you know how you can make your car stop or how you can control the direction it’s going in? That kind of illustrates what inertia is - keeping anything moving straight without changing direction or keeping something from changing to a position is the force called inertia. 
  • IMUs (inertial measurement units): it’s the following measurement tools all in action together
  • Gyroscope: this tool helps to pick up when an object is deviating off of its desired orientation - the tool either uses a wheel that spins super fast or a beam of light circulating.
  • Magnetometer: it measures the first part of its name - magnetic forces.
  • Accelerometer: yup, you guessed it - this device measures an object or body’s accelerating movement or vibration.

This technique doesn’t necessarily need cameras to operate. It records movement through IMUs (inertial measurement units), which contain sensors to measure rotational rates. The most common sensors used in IMUs are gyroscopes, magnetometers, and accelerometers.

motion capture animation actors

Image via Sentimental Flow

Optical (Passive):

This method finds actors kitted out with super tight suits which have retroreflective markers on them. As the actor moves, the retroreflective markers on the suit reflect from the nearby camera lenses, and that reflected light is tracked by infrared cameras, producing the motions and emotions for the further digitalization of the character.

This motion capture animation method actually dates way back to the method rotoscoping with Fleischer, with its techniques being fine-tuned with technology in the past years. You can read more about rotoscoping here.

Optical-Passive motion capture is mostly used by big guns in animation and film. Even then, only for the most accurate content needed. In this case, impressive realistic content comes at a hefty price.

Optical (Active):

With this motion capture method, the actors are in the same suits, except they have LED suit markers rather than retroreflective markers. Basically, making light rather than reflecting, the motion is captured by cameras that specifically record the lights' movements.

This isn't the most practical option because, of course, the LEDs need a power source which means some kind of battery/charge, and well, it just gets complicated and risky.

Marker-less:

For our fourth motion capture animation method, the actors are saved from wearing suits.

Rather the acting is recorded by a bunch of depth-sensitive cameras over a gridded floor.

Every possible angle is recorded, analyzed, and turned into animation software that linked software can make the magic of the motions appear on the object/character.

However, it's not as accurate as the other methods mentioned above and is preferred by larger companies for minimizing retakes for fuller scenes.

Technology Needed for Motion Capture Animation

So by now, you've probably already picked up on some of the technology you need to use motion capture animation. But here are some more details, including what kind of software and hardware options there are:

  • Mocap Suit
mocap suits are needed for motion capture animation

Image via Filmslifestyle

It’s intriguing to watch an actor/actress change into their character using make-up and wardrobe, but when it comes to using motion capture animation, dress-up is a lot “less.” At least for the actor/actress.

Their outfit is typically a fitted, green lycra (basically spandex) suit, shoes, gloves, and a hat. The technician pretty much does the rest as he strategically sticks optical/reflective markers to the suit using hook velcro.

Just to make sure those markers come loose or transfer to other parts of the body or cause any other complications, colored neoprene patches are used to really secure those markers.

Anywhere between 15 to 65, reflect markers are placed on the suit, focusing on important joint movement. These markers track gravitational pull as well as rotation - ensuring even the tiniest of movements are digitally recorded

  • Head-Mounted Camera + all the others
some cameras are needed for mocap animations

Image from 20th Century Studios via Youtube

Moving onto the cameras, including the head-mounted camera, which, in some ways, it is kind of like the old wire construction headgear to get your teeth straight.

Moving on from that image, the head-mounted camera(s) ensure the emotions of the performer are captured and turned into anything from a realistic match or a totally reimagined creature.

With motion capture animation, the cameras, in general, are not taking realistic “photos” or “films” as we associate cameras with. They’re focusing on collecting and putting together data.

The data collected is taken from coordinating infrared or near-infrared light to create those constantly moving maps we discussed earlier. So again, you’re not seeing an image but a collection of detailed mapped-out data.

These cameras - head-mounted or not - make capturing large scenes simpler because there are no re-setting scenes, cameras, or angels, and therefore entire scenes can be filmed rather than broken up for changes.

  • Software

Software, software, software - you can’t have recorded data without software to process it. We all know that.

motion capture animation software

GIF by Feliks Tomasz Konczakowski via Giphy

What makes motion capture animation so great is that the software can be used to create a version of the subject simultaneously as it’s being acted out.

Of course, once the filming is done, the software is really pulled in to make the subject come into existence fully. 

Although mocap is brilliant, it’s not perfect, so there’s definitely post-filming work to be done. So be sure to include that in your production timeline.

Important to note that mocap hardware and software often come as a package deal - using different hardware and software is really not ideal.

Most companies providing mocap come with both, so utilizing their compatibility is the wisest route.

Autodesk Maya, Unreal Engine, Blender, Unity, Cinema 4D Houdini, and others are generally used by larger studios. And then usually the studios stick to using one.

  • Studio
a studio is beneficial for large scale motion capture animation

Image via The Mocap Academy

Naturally, mocap can’t be used outside of studio walls. This specific studio is called the “Volume,” and its purpose pretty much houses a bunch of cameras.

We’re not just talking about a small bunch - in a mocap studio; you’re looking at around 60 cameras focused on capturing every detail of every motion.

The Volume needs to have minimal extras in the room - only the props or scenery that is really essential makes it in. We are talking mostly about VFX (visual effects), so the rest will come in later.

The floor of the Volume is tapped into a grid that includes reference points made by markers. The mocap studio is streamlined to make this capturing process as clean as possible.

  • Your Cell Phone 

Technically, doing some big motion capture animation won’t come out so good through some phone app.

However, technology has already evolved to allow anyone with Instagram or Tic-Tok to use “filters.” They’re changing your face and the faces around the world into whichever thing the filter changes you into.

motion capture animation on your phone

GIF by Talia Wille

Filters base their tech on a type of mocap. And if you think about it logically - it’s using your phone’s camera to map your face and animate it.

So if you’re really starting on this whole motion capture animation situation, why not see how filters work and how you can use them for initial content?

If you want to see where we got some of our info and read some more on the tech needed for motion capture animation, you can read “Motion Capture Animation Services

Timeline of Mocap’s Development

It’s fascinating how animation history has developed to what it is today. It’s even more fascinating to see how it shapes animations today.

The development of motion capture animation has its roots deep in the family tree of animation. The kind of technology needed had to catch up with today’s content, but, as you’ll see, mocap was there pretty much at the start. 

1917 (9 October), Max Fleischer patents his invention of Rotoscope - a method that traces over the live-action image or film to create a more accurate version of an animated character and its movements.

max fleischer using motion capture animation through rotoscoping

Image from Vox via Youtube

Rotoscoping became the next step in animation’s evolution and, even today, is foundational in the animation business. You can even use it as your secret technique for great animation.

In the 1960s, Lee Harrison III developed his Animac and Scanimate technology that used analog circuits, cathode ray tubes, and adjustable resistors to film the actor/actress and animate them simultaneously.

Actors would get all harnessed and wired up with suits that used potentiometers to send movement data to a computer which in term created a rough animated version

It grew in popularity, especially in advertising and some films, but the development of technology to support the technique was slower to develop. It wasn’t really generating a huge use in the film industry until…

2000 and the release of Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists used the technology for the whole film. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a great success, but it sparked something in the motion capture animation industry.

motion capture animation for gollum

GIF by Gobelinus Regius via Tumblr

In the late 2000s, Peter Jackson used and developed the technique in his Trilogy - The Lord of the Rings. Wearing bodysuits with retroreflective ping-pong balls, “animated” actors could perform alongside their fellow actors.

Gollum, played by Andy Serkis, has become a legend in motion capture animation with the actor’s brilliant portrayal of Gollum in voice and motion, creating an unforgettable CGI character.

Since then, motion capture animation has developed to the point where it is used in any major film to some degree. And probably finds its way into almost any animation.

Examples of Memorable Motion Capture Animation

Of course, we cannot leave you with only the memory of Gollum (although brilliant enough to do so). We just had to name some of the impressive characters that have followed him in the form of motion capture animation.

Apologies in advance for all the characters that should be mentioned but weren’t, including the whole gaming world!

andy serkis is a famous motion capture animation actor

Image via Roko 

We’ll continue with Andy Serkis - his motion-captured roles of Kong in “King Kong” and Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is considered among the best.

And then, sticking with the same animal theme, we have Toby Kebbell as Koba in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

We’ve got Rosa Salazar as Alita in “Alita: Battle Angel”, Alan Tudyk as Sonny in “I, Robot,” Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts / Parzival in “Ready Player One” and Jason Cope as Christopher Johnson / Grey Bradnam in “District 9”.

benedict cumberbatch using motion capture animation

GIF by iceprincess7492 via Fanpop

And then we cannot ignore Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug in“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (watch this behind the scenes) or Toby Jones as Dobby in“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

Nor Bill Nighy Davy Jones in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” not to mention all the other fantastical and fearsome creatures in the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy (all those slimy tentacles and fishy faces are thanks to motion capture animation).

hollywood uses motion capture animation for cgi

GIF via Gfycat

Avatar. Need we say more! James Camron took motion capture animation beyond animation and created a whole world! He even used mocap to create the flight path of the helicopter, never mind the luminous land and creatures. 

marvel using motion capture animation for cgi characters

GIF via Engadget

We can’t ignore Marvel now, can we - Mark Ruffalo as Hulk and Josh Brolin as Thanos. Their emotions and motions are so accurate that you almost cry with Thanos (not really, cause he's kinda crazy).

But of course, we don’t just want examples of CGI or 3D real-life mocap. We want the “animated” animation too…

Remember a certain penguin that couldn’t stop tap-dancing? Elijah Wood may have been the voice of Mumble in Happy Feet, but tapping and dancing are all done by Savion Glover.

complex movements for animated characters can be done through mocap animation

GIF by Talia Wille

Behind the Scenes: Happy Feet 1 minute in, and you’ll see what we’re talking about when we say motion capture animation collided with filming a tap dancer to produce a happy, tapping penguin

“How Pixar's Movement Animation Became So Realistic | Movies Insider” - In this video, you can see countless examples where motion capture animation is used by Pixar, including the phenomenal details of the pianist's hands on the keys in “Soul”.

It’s not often that a professionally trained musician can look at any film (not just animation) and say that what is show-cased is actually realistic. But here, mocap can provide pretty accurate satisfaction to the professionals out there. 

pixar makes use of motion capture animation

GIF by Talia Wille

Why Freelance Animators Should Use Motion Capture Animation

Well, as we recap the information in this article, one can clearly see that motion capture animation has a future filled with limitless possibilities.

As we explained what motion capture animation is - its techniques and tech; as we examined the development and memorable moments, including its rise in other areas, we conclude that mocap is fast becoming “precious.”

Whether for an advert, a film or game character, or a medical or military purpose, you already have clients waiting. Because yes, those are all some of the markets for motion capture animation.

motion capture animation for the video game industry

GIF by Dungeons and Dragons via Giphy

And as usual, we at BOA are making sure you and your business are in motion with the rise of motion capture animation. We believe that adding the skill of mocap will put your business a step above in the animation world.

That’s not all we’re trying to keep you in motion with. We’ve got a variety of other articles like “How TikTok Animators are Dominating the Animation Industry” and how to create a professional animation portfolio.

Even before you get too deep into mocap, check out our free masterclass and marketing handbook, so you are ready to open the door to those waiting clients!

If you’re ready to pull emotion and motion out of your animation skills, start by reading our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio.” We’ll take you and your business to performance skills that mocap will be panting to catch up to.

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