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Nick Strives to Define Motion Capture

Deborah Reber profiles three applications of motion capturetechnology that are currently in production. In "Nick Strives to DefineMotion Capture," she interviews Jeffrey Beers, Executive Producer ofthe Digital Animation Group at Nickelodeon.

© Nickelodeon.

Is motion capture animation here to stay? And if so, will it find a place of legitimacy in the animation and entertainment community at large? These are just some of the questions Jeffrey Beers, Executive Producer of the Digital Animation Group at Nickelodeon, is trying to answer. Since its inception, motion capture animation as an art form has been criticized by animation traditionalists, who view this `performance animation' as more part of the acting world than that of animation. Many creators of 2D animation characters find it difficult to see their two-dimensional worlds collide with the realities of a three-dimensional world, and sometimes greet the motion capture reincarnations of their characters less than enthusiastically. For others, these reincarnations are too `life-like,' something they never intended their creations to be. The network and broadcast industries have also failed to embrace motion capture as a legitimate form of animation, most likely because of its prevalence in computer CD-ROM games. Is there a way to make this still relatively new technology work for television networks? Jeffrey Beers says, "Yes." Nickelodeon, like its sister company MTV, has dabbled in motion capture, bringing some of their own well-known characters like Arnold (Hey Arnold), and the Angry Beavers to life using this technique. Most recently, a 3D version of Rugrat Stu Pickles was created last fall to promote The Rugrats Movie. This three-dimensional Stu appeared on the VH-1 show Hollywood and Vinyl, where he was interviewed by pop musician Lisa Loeb. "Motion capture animation is perfect for live or hosted events like the Kids Choice Awards when you need to do real-time animation," says Beers. In these instances, motion capture offers instantaneous animation at a level of quality that is acceptable for these types of shows. Plus, when no post-rendering is needed and the animation is truly `real-time,' the cost benefits are quite evident. The VH-1 interview with Stu Pickles lasted about seven minutes, and cost less than $60,000 to produce.

Hey Arnold! is one of many existing 2D properties that has been translated into the digital world via motion capture. © Nickelodeon.

But in order for motion capture to be more than just a technique that is used for live events or short interstitials, as in Nickelodeon's Nickel-O-Zone, it is necessary to develop a genre that can utilize the technique and provide more than just "acceptable" quality. Jeffrey Beers explains, "I'm looking for the D.W. Griffith of motion capture. The Lumiere brothers invented film technology, but it took D.W. Griffith to show what film could really do. That's the next step for motion capture animation. The technology is there." Through Nickelodeon's Digital Group, Beers has been experimenting with motion capture animation, looking for innovative ways to make the medium work in long-form. To date, most motion capture animation has involved turning the look of traditionally animated shows and characters into motion capture. But a lot of traditional animation, such as Looney Tunes, is based in part on exaggerated movements and unrealistic actions. Since motion capture records movements in an even, flowing pace, action-based programming doesn't work as a natural extension. What does seem to have possibilities within the motion capture world are content, dialogue-based genres. So, Nickelodeon's initial motion capture experiments have involved situation comedies, incorporating as many as three animated characters on-screen at once. Generally, when multiple motion capture characters are on-screen at the same time, each character has been filmed separately and later composited into the scene. But Nickelodeon aims to have multiple characters captured simultaneously, which presents its own obstacles. The number of total polygons accessible to be digitized per character is reduced, resulting in a loss of detail for each character. Nickelodeon continues to experiment in the hope that they will find the genre of motion capture animation that takes full advantage of what the technique has to offer. If their search is successful, the payoff could be big. Based on Nickelodeon's model, a half-hour motion capture animation program could cost as little as $200,000, versus a minimum of $400,000 per episode for a traditional cel animated half-hour program. Moreover, with more competition in the cable television industry coming from the Cartoon Network, Toon Disney and others, everyone in the arena is going to have to figure out cost-effective ways to continue to entertain. Motion capture's question of longevity might just be answered in the process. Deborah Reber manages Ancillary Projects for Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues and is a freelance writer based in New York.