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Sinbad Brings Motion Capture Feature Animation into New Terrain

Deborah Reber profiles three applications of motion capturetechnology that are currently in production. In "Sinbad Brings MotionCapture Feature Animation into New Terrain," the feature film Sinbad:Beyond the Veil of Mists is profiled.

Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists. © Improvision.

Keep your eyes out for a new name in animation. That name is Pentafour, India's premier computer effects company, which is currently in production on its first animated feature film, Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists.

Sinbad, due for release in 1999, is the first-ever feature-length film fully animated using the relatively new technique of motion capture. While many films today incorporate motion capture on some level to achieve seamless visual effects (remember those impressive aerial views of Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet standing on the front tip of the ship in Titanic?), Sinbad is the first to extend this technique to the big screen in such an explicit way. As anyone will tell you, being a forerunner in a new medium has its ups and downs. Pentafour's goal to push motion capture to new levels has presented many admittedly "mind-boggling" challenges at nearly every stage of production on Sinbad. New sets had to be elaborately designed and built using wire-frame materials to allow proper pick-up of the actors infrared sensors. At the same time, the sets had to match perfectly the animated sets and props to ensure an exact picture composite. In addition, two groups of live actors had to be cast for the film. One of these groups consisted of actors who were chosen in large part because of their physical attributes. The closer the actors resembled the height and body shape of the characters they were portraying, the easier the post-production process in bringing shape to the digital data captured on film. The second group of actors consisted of the voice-over talent, as would be hired in any animated film. Pentafour chose to work with known celebrities to add prestige and marketability to the film. Actors including Brendan Fraser (Sinbad), Leonard Nimoy (Baraka), Mark Hamill (as the King's Guard), Jennifer Hale (Princess Serena) and John Rhys Davies (King Chandra) make up the voice-over talent.

Brendan Fraser and Jennifer Hale provide the voices of Sinbad and Princess Serena. © Improvision.

Despite the obstacles Pentafour has encountered throughout the production of Sinbad, there seem to be a surplus of benefits in utilizing the motion capture technique for an animated film. Pentafour producer Sriram Rajan expects Sinbad to be completed for under $20 million. That is about one-fifth of what a Disney animated feature would cost to produce. In addition to saving money, the producers are saving time as well, as the production process is comparably shorter as well. Sinbad is expected to be completed within a 12-month window, nearly half the time a traditionally cel animated film would take to produce. The shooting of the studio material itself lasted only eight intense weeks, and from there, the fate of the film lies in the hands of the digital animators, who are literally working around the clock, not to mention around the world. A staff of about 200 animators is working away in Madras, India, while a smaller pool of animators in Los Angeles support the production. The two offices communicate with each other via a direct satellite link. Sinbad animators are using state-of-the-art motion capture digital techniques with the help of software designed for Pentafour by the Los Angeles-based company House of Moves (Mortal Kombat, Titanic). With the release of Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists, Pentafour hopes to make a splash in the mostly American-dominated feature animation industry.

© Improvision.

"We expect to be a big player in this industry by the end of next year, and obviously the release of Sinbad and the appreciation we hope to get for that would definitely put our name at the top with most of the other production houses," said Sriram Rajan. Pentafour hopes to link up eventually with a major Hollywood studio and develop a relationship similar to the one between Disney and Pixar. Until then, Pentafour has its hands full with completing Sinbad. They are also currently working on a new 13-part motion capture animated series, in partnership with a Japanese comic book company. Deborah Reber manages Ancillary Projects for Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues and is a freelance writer based in New York.