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Who's Data Is That Anyway?

Gregory Peter Panos, founding co-director of the Performance Animation Society, describes a new frontier of dilemmas, the politics of performance animation.

A realistic rendition of Bill Clinton has been animated with motion-capture by Protozoa for a spoof on MTV, proof that anyone can be digitally

A long time from now, your data will mean a great deal to you. Kind of ironic isn't it? You've been dead for over 100 years and they are still using data gathered from you, while you were alive, to keep you in existence.

For a movie star, political figure, athlete and other famous persons, this is becoming a very real scenario. Initially the famous and rich will be digitizing their 3-D forms, actions, motions, voices, gestures, and eventually their life stories, with the specific objective of creating a robust database, ostensibly for the creation of a realistic construct of what? Themselves, of course!

An Era of Digital People

Today, motion capture is being used to save money, time and add realism to human animation and characters for feature films, episodic television and commercials. Occasionally, 3-D digitizing, used to capture a person's shape and body, aid in the quest for simulated digital realism. This is all still new to most producers and directors, but their ambitious goals to create fully directable virtual actors ties a common thread among them.

Motion capture suits like this are used to track an actor's motion, which can then be applied to a digital character.

Performance Animation is a term that describes a situation where a live human performer animates a digital character in real-time. Motion-Capture, on the other hand, only describes the recording process for physical movement of a live person. Performance Animation embodies a more complete attribution of the creative process to the live human, while motion capture strips away the person and boils down their data into a distilled stream of numbers, a mere effigy of the life that created it. Performance Capture is a more polite term which is beginning to catch on, and attempts to join the world of cold, lifeless data extraction, with the world of warm, living, spontaneous creative energy.

Ownership of Data

These terms, and the evolving technologies that support them, are moving toward an era when they will be deployed for purely personal reasons by the same people who are the subject of such digitizations now. Today, if a producer pays to have an actor's performance or rehearsal motion captured, and the actor is paid according to scale for their efforts, the person who pays for it `owns' the data. This is not completely true however when it comes to 3-D shape digitization of an actor. In this case, the person who pays for the 3-D process might own the data and the media that it is stored on, but the easy determination of actual `likeness' prevents them from using this data in any way toward commercial intentions without their express consent or that of their estate or heirs. This is good that our senses rule here, however, many believe that our heirs or estate could never anticipate our feelings about how our data might be used.

It seems that the concept of "likeness" has been highly developed as a strong legal point that is easily proven and defended from piracy, unauthorized uses and exploitation. Motion captured human data has not yet achieved this same status for a numbers of reasons. It is not yet common that we will discern one person's movement as distinctly different from another persons through visual analysis. However, on rare occasion, an action, such as Michael Jackson's dancing which was recently captured digitally, clearly appears to represent a person's likeness when displayed through even the most primitive stick figure animation tests. For the majority of most actors who perform physically for a motion capture session, they don't retain any rights to this data. For more distinguishable, name value performers, their motions might quickly be recognized by a majority of culturally experienced viewers. Therefore, recognizable stars' motions can allow them to assert their legal rights to their data more easily. These stars may see greater value in the existence of such data as an asset that they own and can control and few will question that it is a precious commodity to them. Ownership of one's data would seem like an easy thing for a digitized person to establish, be it in 3-D shapes, body motions, facial expressions, voice recordings or in a variety of other forms. The logic goes, "It's data of me so it must be mine, right?" Wrong! This legal issue has not yet been dealt with in the courts, but it will soon rise to see the day.

Virtually Famous We've already seen the likenesses of Bill Clinton, Fred Astair, Ed Sullivan, George Burns and others used in various ways for television commercials and feature films. While we speak, the rights to other famous dead persons are being bought, sold and licensed for eventual digital re-animation. This activity rings a variety of bells in people's heads: some are horrified, some think it's cute and fun, while others figure, "Hey, they're dead, so who cares anyway!" The truth is that this activity is not being treated any differently than licensing a person's likeness in the conventional way. Pictures, artist renderings, sculptures and other forms of visual documentation are well established as viable media for licensing a person's likeness. It is only a matter of time before the new technologies used to create more robust, resolute, time-variant documentation of a person will be as universally accepted with the same validity as more conventional mediums such as photography. It won't only be the rich and famous that are rushing to get themselves scanned and digitized in the 3-D studios of tomorrow's photographers.

This screen shot shows the movement points and motion controls used by animators running the 3-D program Softimage for Windows 95/NT. © Softimage.

Freeze, Please!

There are a number of 3-D shape digitizing technologies that are beginning to appear on the commercial horizon for creative types to adopt. Eventually, 3-D cameras will be inexpensive, fast, compact and effective. Everyone will have one. Home computers will easily accept 3-D camera data and be able to animate and use this data as components in virtual worlds that are populated by virtual people. Just think what the "paparazzi" and the tabloids will be doing with these new toys! It boggles the mind and will keep lots of "rights lawyers" busy for years to come.

"Was that actually you there, doing that, or was that your virtual construct?" the Judge will ask. A jury of robots and expert witnesses will measure and sample and compare data before rendering their verdict to the court. "Will the bailiff please read the verdict?" "Not virtual," the bailiff will reply and thus, the accused will slump down in their chair with their head bowed in silence.

Do we remember that President Bill Clinton was upset that his likeness was used in a scene in the recent movie Contact that did not depict his actions accurately? Well Billy Boy, you just wait 'til some sneaky photographer snaps you in 3-D shaking hands and kissing babies! Some day all hell will break loose when data gets used in the wrong way. This presents a very serious potentially real threat to our common belief that, "If you see it, it's the truth, right?" It's his data all right, but it's the wrong virtual world and the wrong time. "That wasn't me!" Sorry Bill, maybe next election they'll know it was just a simulation?

The Virtual World to Come

Well, what should we do? Restrict and legislate this activity? If we do, we risk losing the joy of seeing our children interact with their simulated grandparents long after they are gone or learning from our ancestors first hand where we came from with all the depth, breadth and beauty that such interaction implies. Should we miss leaving behind our own approved, optimized, ideal version of our self by which we'd rather be remembered? When it becomes easy and affordable, we will all digitize ourselves in some comfortable place created to do just this without a thought and we'll encourage our loved ones to "get scanned" as well!

Some of us will go on to become famous in our lifetime, loved or hated by all. Some will be unknown in life but famous only in death. Others will fade into obscurity, occasionally to be purchased and inserted as a player in a scene in a virtual world acting out some story written by a child. A myriad of other potential situations exist and all of them will be possible as we make our way toward the future of the virtual self.

Thus is the folly of man: to expand, condense, abstract, extrapolate, accept and deny his own immortality through pictures, bodies of work, 3-D data, self-simulation and future concepts as yet unrealized. So it will be for all of us in the virtual world to come.

Link to the Performance Animation Society web site through AWN's Animation Village.

Gregory Peter Panos is Founding Co-Director of, and Director of Administration for, the Performance Animation Society.

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