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MoCap Education: It’s Come of Age

Mary Ann Skweres reports on what students need to know for planning a motion capture education. Includes QuickTime movie clip!

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Demons Within is a five-minute award-winning animated short created by Clemson Universitys Digital Production Arts department. It was entirely done using Vicons motion-capture system. © Clemson University.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from Demons Within by simply clicking the image.

Motion capture has come of age in games and movies its an essential part of the 3D arsenal. To be sure, with ever-changing technologies, professional-level MoCap training is often offered in-house by technology leaders in the industry, but as the price of emerging technologies decreases, courses to prepare students for jobs in the film, television, interactive media and biomedical industries are increasingly offered in colleges, and even high schools.

The basic types of motion capture systems are magnetic, mechanical and optical. The most prominent types today are optical and involve wearing the black spandex suits with the reflective beads known as optic markers. Those beads are just white dots to the camera.

According to Digital Production Arts program director, John Kundert-Gibbs of Clemson University in South Carolina, Its not rocket science, but its not far off.

Clemson University offers a graduate program that takes an interdisciplinary approach that straddles between art and computer science with some theater thrown in. Students that enter the program come in with a myriad of backgrounds. Some have hardcore computer science backgrounds. Others have much more of an art background with very little computer science. Ideally, a candidate for the program has both strong computer science and art backgrounds. That equips them have both tools of the trade a visual sense and the technical know-how to work with computers and make the most out of them.

Kundert-Gibbs says, We dont always get that ideal, but then some of the people who come in with less background in one area kick it up and do fantastic in everything. Its an interesting and collaborative environment because no one student is expected to know everything. They tend to work on a lot of projects together, modeling the real- world [work environment] of a Pixar or ILM where different departments work on a large project.

Because motion capture systems are very expensive and relatively rare in academia, most students lack a motion capture background when they enter the program. If they are seriously interested, Clemson undergrads do get access to the equipment, allowing them to come into the grad program with a good knowledge of how the technology works.

The Art Institute of Los Angeles focuses on learning to be an artist first and technology/software second. Courtesy of Art Institute of Los Angeles.

Clemson has an older Vicon system with eight, 1.3 mega-pixel, digital cameras and can do full body MoCap. The school is currently formalizing a class geared specifically for creating motion capture. Up to this point, motion capture studies have been included as a part of other classes or tackled on a need to know basis such as in production of animations for employment demo reels and submission to festivals. A recent student animation, Demons Within, was developed using Vicon equipment and won Best Independent Animation at Eurographics 05.

Because motion capture is a fairly specialized area, using the system is dependent on the needs of the project. If students are doing a large-scale project that needs very refined animation, as opposed to a cartoon animation, the motion capture facilities can be used. Sometimes the MoCap data is brought into Maya and used as a reference for the action. The animator will then hand-animate over it. The technique is similar to the rotoscoping used on Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which scenes were shot of the characters dancing and then the artists would draw over the top of the film to get a realistic sense of movement and timing.

For SCADs Peter Weishar, the school is unique among art schools because it emphasizes a career in art. Motion capture training is integrated into the curriculum.

Clemson accepts 30 students to their program. Only 25% of the applicants are accepted. Art school competition is great, so Clemson focuses on producing technical directors to help animators out with the more technical jobs such as character rigging, lighting, shading and compositing. In terms of the mix of technical and art skills, the only other schools with similar programs to the one at Clemson are the Ohio State Computer Science Program and Texas A & Ms Visualization Lab. Graduates from the program have worked on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, Cars and for the every major U.S. vfx studio.

If you dont want to wait until grad school to study motion capture and are a high school student in the Washington D.C. area, a new program at McKinley Technology High School could set you on your path sooner.

With the exodus of families to the suburbs and private schools, McKinley Technology High School, once a highly regarded institution, had fallen into the poor condition that commonly plagues inner city schools. Educators wanted to bring the school back to its former glory so it could be a competitive alternative to private schools, while at the same time giving motivated inner-city high school students a head start on real-world, career focused courses normally offered at college undergrad and graduate levels.

In 2004, after 10 years of renovations, MTHS reopened its doors with an innovative curriculum that added the study of new and emerging technology to the core subjects typically taught in a liberal arts-based high school education. Included is a one of a kind program in motion capture for high school students, one of the creative components of the program designed to keep students engaged in the learning process. The new Vicon MoCap studio is the cornerstone of the schools departmental tracks: biomedical, broadcast technology (television, video, radio, webcasting), and interactive media (video game development, visual effects and animation).

An 8-camera Motion Analysis system was donated to the Art Institute of Los Angeles and a dedicated MoCap space has opened. Courtesy of Art Institute of Los Angeles.

The school has partnered with universities to develop the best curriculum and has established good relationships with University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon, NYU, Georgetown and others. Some of the software used in the program is typically seem in university graduate programs. According to Rick Kelsey, technology curriculum director at MTHS, What were trying to do is come as close to a college level curriculum as we can, so that students know that they can go to college because they are already doing college level work.

Unlike other D.C. schools where enrollment has been decreasing, the number of students at MTHS has been expanding. The school began with ninth and 10th grade students, but next year will have students all the way up to 12th grade. Motion capture is available to students from the 10th grade and up. Next year will be the first graduating class that has motion capture analysis on their college applications.

To qualify for the program, prospective students have to agree to take 10 courses of technology over and above normal graduation requirements. Where other high school students take 24 credits, MTHS students take 34. They have to be very interested in technology, which differentiates them from other high school students. They must be willing to put in the extra time and homework. They are not required to come with a high grade point average.

Were not trying to be a Magnet school, says Kelsey. Were trying to show the rest of the United States that you can go to any inner-city school, use technology as the hook and produce students who want a career and want to go to college. Were 98% African American. Whats particularly rewarding is to realize that inner-city youths really do want to take advantage of an education and get a good life. It breaks all the stereotypes, especially of Washington, D.C.

Should the program prove to be a success, the plan is to rollout similar programs at high schools across the country. Already one of MTHSs students won at the science fair with a project that used motion capture analysis to determine at what point a book bag gets too heavy and changes a students posture.

One of the premiere art schools for animation and visual effects is the Savannah College of Art and Design, which recently installed a 12-camera, professional-level Vicon motion capture system. The more cameras in a system, the fewer places there are for the optic markers to hide and the cleaner the resulting data. The school is preparing courses in which students will use Vicon motion capture together with Autodesk MotionBuilder to learn a real-world workflow for recording and using performance capture data in their projects. Because SCAD is one of the largest art schools in the country, it is able to offer a diverse curriculum and many different courses every quarter.

According to Eric Elder, the goal of Art Institute of Los Angeles program is to have graduates leave with minimum entry-level skills in modeling, lighting and texturing.

Peter Weishar, dean of film and video media, says, SCAD is unique among art schools in that there is an emphasis on understanding that the student is going onto a career in the art. I dont say that we do motion capture training, but it is integrated into the curriculum so there will be multiple classes that will use it for a week or two here and there and then we will have advanced classes that focus just on motion capture. As more instructors and students get comfortable with the technology, it will be used more and more.

SCAD offers both a BFA and a Master of Fine Arts and has six departments including departments of visual effects, animation and ITGM (interactive and gaming) that use motion capture. There are 1800 students in the school of film and digital media, with 200 students in the vfx department. The graduate program has between 40 and 50 students. Graduates need to submit a portfolio for consideration. In their first year undergrads go through a foundation program to learn drawing, design and art history, then declare a major before their sophomore year. Freshman may take intro classes to see how they like the more specialized subjects.

The focus of the school is to ensure that the students have the tools to produce their work. One class offers a full quarter of motion capture, but it is also used in other classes such as Realtime Cinematics (a.k.a. Machinima), Animation for Games, 3D Collaborative an animation course Advance Character Animation and vfx Simulation Classes for animation and crowd simulation. The educators also want to use it for previs and previs animatics. It can be used to set-up a virtual environment in software, which was done at Weta. If optic markers are put on a stick and then the system is told that its a camera, the system can track the position and moves of that stick as if its a camera, thus creating a hand-held camera move in a 3D space. Visual effects students, as they devise their own projects, realize that they can take something that seems to have a specific purpose like motion capture and use it for other things. It is not just used for the motion of a character. Anything that moves from dogs to babies to cameras that can have sensors attached, can be used for motion capture data.

The Art Institute is collaborating with a local dance school to produce Fluid, a short that incorporates fine art, dance and motion capture. Courtesy of Art Institute of Los Angeles.

The school strives to provide a well-rounded experience with the whole visual effects pipeline to prepare students not only with the skills that they need, but also the knowledge of what the workplace and the production process is going to be like. Tad Leckman, the chairman of the visual effects department, comes to the school from the entertainment industry. He worked at Industrial Light & Magic for about eight years and has also taught at the Academy of Art University. He says he was attracted to come to SCAD because the program, had the best plan of attack in terms of providing the students with both halves of the equation for visual effects the art training, training their eye, but also the technical training. All of our students are required to take programming classes, which is unheard of in most art schools. It has certainly been useful for our students in finding a job.

Animations from the school have been screened at SIGGRAPH and various other festivals. Students from SCAD are all over the industry, especially places where the school has developed strong relationships such as Rhythm & Hues, Digital Domain, Sony Pictures Imageworks, ILM and Pixar. The school has over a dozen internship agreements with major studios that count towards college credit.

The Art Institute of Los Angeles focuses on learning to be an artist first and technology/software second. The principles of art, design and composition are stressed. The concentration is on 3D animation, not scripting and programming. Software changes, but the basic principles of art remain.

The school has an 8-camera Motion Analysis system that was donated to the school about four years ago. All the software has been upgraded. Originally the MoCap system was in the video production studio, but whenever it was used it then had to be broken down to allow for other video projects. Last quarter a dedicated MoCap space was opened.

Students use the MoCap system primarily for gaming, but also for humanistic 3D characters for feature films in conjunction with 3ds Max and Maya. There is one elective class for motion capture in the curriculum, but the motion capture is also available to production teams, including the Red Giant animation team. Any students involved in their last year demo project, building an animation specific reel that uses motion capture, can also use the system by special appointment as long as they have taken the class. In the motion capture class the students learn how to setup a simple capture and then the rest of the quarter is used learning how to clean up the data, which is the bulk of the work in motion capture. Currently the system is mostly being used for exercises, but thats just scratching the surface of what can be done.

Tad Leckman comes to SCADs visual effects department from Industrial Light & Magic, where he worked for about eight years. He was attracted to the schools program art and technical training.

The programs emphasis is on giving students real production experience including understanding teamwork and production pipelines. The goal of the program is to have our graduates leave with, at the very least, minimum entry level skills to get into the industry, explains Eric Elder. For us that means, modeling, lighting and texturing. We expect our students to specialize in lighting or animation.

The Art Institute is currently engaged in producing a short titled Fluid that incorporates fine art, dance and motion capture. One of the complaints that the teachers of motion capture have is that the students, when they do their own motion capture, are not trained dancers or actors, so the data that they get is clumsy. A local choreographer wanted to incorporate motion capture into her dance program. The two schools agreed to collaborate on the short. The movement was professionally designed for the motion capture and six students were hand-picked from the motion capture class. A special class was created for the students working on the film during the next quarter. From that point, the cleaned-up data will be tweaked, a specific look for the film will be defined, it will be edited and a composer will write an original score. At the end the students will have a short film that was created using motion capture which will then be submitted to festivals, SIGGRAPH and the Academy and used for their demo reels.

The school offers a B.S. degree in media arts and animation and a B.S. in game art and design. There are 400 students in animation and 300 students in the game art. There is no portfolio requirement for animation, but a portfolio and GPA is required for game art.

The school is fortunate to be in Santa Monica right in the heart of the entertainment and gaming industries. It has internships setup with leading companies in the industry and students are credited for their work. The school requires students to request internships at least once a week. By the end of the 11-week quarter, they will have applied for at least 20 internships until they get one. The school has a great career placement program with a staff member from each program dedicated to working with the students to build resumes, keep them up-to-date on internship opportunities and assist in job placement up to six months after graduation.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

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