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Motion Capture on Beowolf and Monster House

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You’ve got to be fast to catch up with motion-capture—a technology that’s evolving so quickly, it changes with each film that uses the technique.At the forefront of this technology is director Robert Zemeckis, who made unique blends of animation and reality in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and last year’s motion-capture breakthrough The Polar Express, in which actor Tom Hanks played multiple roles that were digitally translated into 3D animation.Now Zemeckis is working on two films that are taking motion and performance capture to the next level. He’s executive-producing with Steven Spielberg Monster House, a scary-funny tale of kids discovering an abandoned house that eats people. The film is set for a July release. Zemeckis is directing Beowulf, adapting the ancient poem about a warrior who conquers the beast Grendel. The film is expected to be released at the end of 2007.Evolution in motion capture technology is rapid. Each film uses new techniques that improve on what has gone before. “Every film has been a new generation of technology,” says Jay Redd, Sony Pictures Imageworks’ visual effects supervisor on Monster House.Preparations for the film began with director Gil Kenan drawing storyboards for a year before bringing Redd and Imageworks on board in early 2004 to discuss what the movie should look like and how to make it.Unlike previous motion-capture pictures The Polar Express and Final Fantasy, the characters in Monster House were never intended to be photorealistic. “They’re human beings, but they’re not human scale,” says Redd. “We kept talking about motion capture and its look and feel. We kept thinking about our characters as puppets because of the style. They’re digital puppets.”The next step was figuring out how to capture the actors. The film had different requirements than The Polar Express, in which Hanks performed his multiple roles in smaller spaces.Debbie Denise, executive VP for production and infrastructure at Imageworks and a visual-effects executive producer on Monster House and Beowulf, says the technology prior to The Polar Express required facial movements to be captured separately from body movements. For Express, they figured out a way to capture both together and to capture two or three performers at once using 54 motion capture cameras.Redd says he and the motion-capture supervisors, working with technology provider Vicon, developed a more advanced setup to suit the specific needs of Monster House. The film required several large rooms, a neighborhood, and had scenes with up to five characters whose body, facial and voice performances needed to be captured simultaneously.The result was a large performance-capture volume of 20 feet square and 16 feet high that had 200 infrared motion-capture cameras focused on it.Additionally, there were six video cameras run by people on the set during the 40-day shoot to provide visual reference of the actors for later animation. “We need to know how our actors are going to play to camera,” Redd explains.Work didn’t stop during shooting, as Redd and his team worked on finalizing the look of their slightly cartoony characters and figured out how to translate the captured performance to the digital versions.The editorial team then created a rough cut of the film based on the video performances, and turned sequences over to Imageworks to be made into a basic digital version that was later refined with natural camera movements and specific body language and into the final animation.Redd calls the film a hybrid of animation and motion capture and says months were spent working out the translations for each character. The combination also allows for creative freedom as animators can change expressions or move characters around to suit the story or the director’s wishes.“We are currently in postproduction,” he says. Imageworks has a couple hundred people working on the more than 1,000 shots for the film. “I feel like postproduction is kind of a misnomer because we’re making the movie now.”The final look of the film is intended to recall stop-motion techniques, and Redd says he wanted it “to feel natural, a little dirty, a little handmade.”Denise says the advances being made in the field are all emphasizing capturing the intangible elements that set performance apart from motion. A lot of the advances on Monster House involve facial expressions and similar advances will be seen on Beowulf.Where on Monster House four or five performances could be captured at once, the limit has been raised to 12 on Beowulf.That makes the experience of shooting the performance capture more like theater, as it allows more actors to interact in the space with the director, who can even at times enter the shot without being picked up by the camera as long as he doesn’t block the reception of the reference points.Denise says crew requirements on a motion capture set are not that different. While there is less need for lighting, more camera operators are needed. Makeup, hair, wardrobe, grips and other set services are still needed to ensure proper placement of reference points.“There’s usually a kind of cool area where we see a lot of concept art, so the actors can see what their characters look like and can get a reminder before they go out into the volume,” she says. “We also have a small mockup of the stage and the director will run through the scene before they shoot it.”The film has completed its seven-week motion capture shoot and is in editing now. Imageworks will start on its first shots in March and will finish the film in October 2007 for a November 2007 release.Beowulf will have a more realistic look than Monster House, though it still will be stylized. “You’re not going to walk out of the theater thinking you’ve seen actors on a real set. You’ll know they’ve been stylized,” says Denise.Redd and Denise say the technology will continue to evolve quickly. Redd expects greater processing speeds to increase the capture volume, number of actors that can be captured at once and the length of shots. Higher-resolution cameras and more stable data will enable faster processing of the data and make possible real-time translation of motion capture to a digital character.Denise says work is in progress on capturing performances on a live-action set, adding just one digital character to a frame with a real set and other actors.

Written by Tom McLean

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