Motion Capture transforms humans into animation

 

Digital effects have been slowly making their entry into all kinds of stages and shows for a long time. The development of technology creates new ways for artists to offer more complex experiences to the senses of the audience. Motion capture is a new technology for the professionals of theater, circus and dance and it’s high in the list of up and coming, intriguing people with its potential applications.

Motion capture technology is currently being used in game development and the movie industry, where the movement of a live actor is attached to an animated character. It could also be used in live shows to convert the actor’s movement in real time into a digital form, which can then be used to create a new digital dimension to the show.

Keho Interactive, in collaboration with Arts Promotion Centre Finland, Finnish Stage Combat Society and Sorin Sirkus, hosted a workshop on 27.-30.1.2017 of Motion capture and stunt-technology. The workshop included lessons from Carrie Thiel, a motion capture expert and choreographer from The Lord of the Rings movies. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Carrie Thiel is on the top of her field and the chance to learn from her was a rare opportunity for those interested in motion capture technology.

Carrie Thiel teaching actors how to move in front of the motion capture cameras

Zach Compton, an animator from Keho Interactive  Ltd., is following the fighting scene unfolding in the background as a live animation from his computer screen

In the workshop the participants had a chance to practice choreographies combining stage combat and stunts. The participating professionals came from a wide variety of backgrounds: there were dancers, actors, circus performers, stage combatants and professional parkour runners. The choreographies co-written with the directors were transferred into their digital form in front of the motion capture cameras. Even though some of the participants had previous experience on stage combat and stunts the addition of motion capture technology was a new experience to all of them.

The idea behind the workshop was first introduced in 2015, when Iiro Heikkilä and Oula Kiitti from the Finnish Stage Combat Society, took part in a similar workshop in Norway and found out that no one was organizing a similar event in Finland. As it turned out that the city of Tampere was not only the home to the finnish professionals of motion capture, the necessary equipment, the stunt expert Jouni Kivimäki but also had the diverse operating facilities of Sorin Sirkus, it was decided that it would also host the workshop.

“The goal of the workshop is to introduce the possibilities of motion capture, bring together people from different fields of work and create a network of interdisciplinary collaboration”, says the organizer and Regional Artist of Pirkanmaa, Iiro Heikkilä. On the other hand, he wants to promote the art of stunts and stage combat. “The purpose of the workshop is also to improve the working skills and qualifications of the participants”, he continues.

The organizers of the workshop held the workshop not only to share their knowledge, but also to learn new things. Jouni Kivimäki from Sorin Sirkus works with circus and stunts. His field of expertise are falls, fights, fires and car stunts played out in movies and theater stages. In the workshop he coached the participants, amongst other things, on how to use a harness in flight and jumping scenes. Kivimäki joined the organizing crew out of curiosity, wanting to learn more about the motion capture technology and its applications in circus performances.

Jouni Kivimäki of Sorin Sirkus giving an example of the correct starting position before a backwards directed flight

Oula Kiitti from the Finnish Stage Combat Society has directed fighting scenes for theaters for example

The main reason for the participants and the organizers to take part in the workshop is that they want to expand and diversify their skills and knowledge. In a rapidly developing line of work, constant improvement of one’s own skills and knowledge seems to be a priority to all parties involved. According to Iiro Heikkilä, as a performer, director and choreographer, it is vital to have as large toolkit at your disposal as possible. It allows you to combine different elements into the show when necessary.

Carrie Thiel also emphasizes the importance of diverse competence from the director’s point of view. Having competence in a variety of different forms of movement and being able to master multiple kinds of roles gives the actor a wider spectrum of employment possibilities than being an expert in any single style of acting. According to Thiel, the most important skill a motion capture actor can have is imagination, since the scenes are often shot without props or other actors. The same actor might be playing multiple roles during a single day and must be able to adapt his movement according to each role.

One of the challenges of motion capture technology is that body language needs to be much less subtle than in traditional movie filming. Even though gestures are normally exaggerated to the camera, with motion capture technology they need to be made even more distinct, explains Jouni Kivimäki. Carrie Thiel underlines that a motion capture actor needs to use his voice and movement to create the wanted energy into the character. A background in theater, for example, can be beneficial when working with motion capture, as stage actors are more used   overdoing their actions than movie actors whose focus in acting is more on the expression on their face than the poise of their body.

Cameras keep track of the actor’s movement with reflective points in the suit

Technology is constantly progressing and the growth of Virtual Reality headsets brings along a demand for a more lifelike style of animation. Carrie Thiel reveals that she is anxiously waiting for the possibilities created by the next step in the evolution of virtual reality. Mikko Karsisto from Keho Interactive shares a different vision: he thinks that augmented or mixed reality will be a bigger thing than a completely virtual one. Whichever scenario comes to pass; motion capture technology will play a big role in the creation of these virtual worlds.

Even though motion capture has been used for many years by Hollywood film studios, its use in Finland is almost non-existent. Fortunately, after the workshop there are a handful of professional performers more interested in motion capture out there. The participants hope to put their skills into use in motion capture-stunts and other related projects. Time will tell in what kind of performances we will run into these gifted actors.

Written by Vilma Linna, translated by Hermanni Ahtiainen