Monday, August 2, 2010

Is Mocap Animation?

I know, the age old question, but I do get emails about it and I know I rant about it a lot, but might as well post my answer here as well. Feel free to argue, flame and curse, but as someone who's used mocap before, here' s my take (and email response):

Manipulation of images on a frame by frame basis. Isn't that the rule
set forth by the Academy?

Isn't a regular film animation as well then? They do color timing and
lots of other stuff on a frame by frame basis, which is the definition
of animation, no? Manipulation of images on a frame by frame basis? I
know, I'm really stretching it here...

Animation gets created from scratch, film is being recorded and
manipulated afterwards.

That, to me, is a big personal distinction. And the moment you add
something to the mix that is based on a real time recording, it messes
up the clear distinction of work being animation.

Looking at the whole process of using mocap, then my take is yes, it's
animation. It's just a tool. Each tool gives the artist a certain amount
of freedom. Although mocap gives you none. Mocap is very hard on
animator's egos (including mine) because their creative choices are
ignored since someone else is doing the work for them. The animators are
just here to clean up the data. But once you get the data, people have
to clean it up and even after that, animators tweak the data in order to
get the right performance out of it and often times chunks are being
deleted completely and replaced by keyframe work. So there is
manipulation on a frame by frame basis. Hence for me, animation.

The big problem that people have is that the acting choices are being
recorded in real time. Since it's real time, it's not animation. True,
but people are only focusing on one section of using mocap. When you
shoot reference and use it, you are also basing your animation on that
footage that a camera recorded in real time. But instead of a computer
and a mocap wrangler taking that data and making it useful for the
animation, it's the animator themselves that have to take (or choose and
take) what frame and pose is good and then they put that onto their
character. So instead of an automated process by a computer and then
manual process by a data person, the artist does it all. It's just a
different way of using the recorded footage on your rig. Yet when an
animator does it all, it's called animation. That's just people's egos
being hurt and people being hypocrites, don't you think?
It's also based on people who haven't used mocap and don't understand
the process. They think that a camera records it all and then voila, via
magic, it's in the movie and no one did anything to it. If it were that
case, then I wouldn't call it animation either. But no mocap goes
untouched. But then the movie is being announced as a mocap movie and
people cry foul, "It's not animation!".

[Added: And that's where most of my pissy attitude comes from, to dismiss a movie like Avatar as being "just" a mocap movie with no animation. The creatures were not mocapped, a lot of the action scenes were keyframed, but that gets lost amidst all the mocap hate... No, the mocap recording process is not animation, just like shooting reference isn't, but the end result often times is, due to the manual work involved to fix it or the fact that it gets redone from scratch by hand. Imagine someone shoots reference, then does rough blocking, then you get the shot and fix some parts, do others from scratch and polish the rest. Does that mean you're not an animator doing animation because you didn't do everything?]

Personally, I couldn't care less [about the process]. Whatever it takes to get the shot done
for your client/director/whoever. It's the end result that matters, not
the tool. Should I refuse to use the mocap data at work because they are
not using my brilliant acting choices? Good luck explaining that to the
client who wants the acting choices of his actors. Or when you have a
scene with 50 characters in it. Do you want to keyframe 50 characters?
Mocap will be much faster. Mocap can look very mocap-y, but it will feel
more real than keyframe animation and if the project is based on a
photoreal look, then it will be more convincing and better for the
project. Again, it's not exactly fulfilling on a creative level, but I
think being a professional animator is more than just creating animation
by hand from scratch. It's about bringing someone else's vision to the
screen. That's what you're hired to do. So use what is at your disposal
in order to get the job done, regardless of what your preference is.

Animators always complain that there shouldn't be a distinction between
2D and 3D, that it's just a tool, it's the story that matters. Well,
once mocap comes into play, people forget that very quickly, no?

If I had a choice for my own personal work, I wouldn't use mocap. Why?
Because there's no creativity on your part. You are just a tool, you're
not given the option to create the performance (which is in my opinion
the main reason why people are opposed to it, if they're honest with
themselves). It's just too much fun to come up with your own animation
and acting choices.

So yes, if you look at the whole process of mocap, from the beginning,
the fixing and tweaking and reworking to the end result, then yes, there
is enough manual work behind it that makes it animation.
If you just look at the process of recording the mocap artists, then no.
Just like filming yourself acting things out is not animation. And if
you look at possible future ways where the mocap actors are being
recorded and the data is being put onto the rig and rendered and it
looks finished, then no, because no one has manipulated and tweaked and
changed it.

Ah... ranting...


Phil Willis said...


It's an interesting post (or as you called it a "rant") ;)

I'm working in mocap at the moment and I can say for certain that there are more than enough modifications and fixes to the original motion to have it classified as animation.

For me the distinction between editing motion capture data and merely color correcting is that with mocap you are actually editing the MOTION of the character.

Changing the way things move to provide the illusion of life is definitely animation: Selling weight. Adding exaggeration. Squash and stretch. Overlap and follow through.

If that process isn't animation, then I'm not sure what is.

You could argue that a big component of keyframe animation is coming up with great acting choices - but an animator can hardly be credited with ALL of those acting ideas, since they are significantly shaped by the director and supes anyway.

Anyway - it's an interesting discussion - and I'd be keen to hear other people's ideas on the subject.


Jean-Denis Haas said...

Oh I was just teasing with the color correction. I agree that we are concerned about motion. I just take issue with the vague rule of "frame by frame manipulation". Manipulation of what? By whom?

Anyway. I guess it's rant Monday.

Barry said...

Hi JD,

Interesting post. I think I pretty much agree with you. Currently I work with mocap a lot, and the amount of creative fulfillment is directly related to how much I end up tweaking or changing it.

It will never be as fun as key-framing something from scratch, but it can be a useful tool, depending on the project.

One other side note, aside from tweaking it, I have had the opportunity to suit up in the mocap suit, and the stuff I get from that is actually really fun and rewarding to work with. Again, probably because I got to make the creative/acting decisions.

philip said...

Over here in the UK they're starting to call game jobs 'motion editor' positions which at least tells you what you're going to be doing in that role. I have worked with mo-cap quite recently and as you don't get to have creative control of the action you can mold it to something a bit better. I found i will strip a lot of keys out of a piece just to get the motion and poses looking better. But I would agree that it is animation, just clean up like in the 2d days!

John Valley said...

Here's my deal - I've worked with mocap myself as well and I agree with most of your points and I agree that a movie like "Avatar" had keyframed animation in it, just as much as it did mocap. But the problem I see in your post is how you say that reference footage and mocap are pretty much the same thing. I disagree with that for a few reasons.
I'm not sure if other animators work this way, but using reference footage should not be used frame per frame. You should focus on the important "key" frames of the reference footage and use those. The animator should then take into consideration the pose and either keep it as it is or exaggerate. If the animator copies the reference footage exactly, then all he did was rotoscope. Reference footage is meant to be just that, a reference. You clearly state what mocap is, and your right. But I still see it as a complete separation from animation. Live action is recorded and then manipulated by an animator... so then is an film editor and animator? Maybe that's a stretch. I think the better comparison is mocap is rotoscope, but it's not animation... You hurt my animator's ego haha.

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Hey John,

you're right that you should focus on the important "key" moments of the reference footage. Sorry if that was unclear. To me it's mostly the same because of the nature and style of animation, where some projects demand to stick closely to the reference.
And yes, mocap is rotoscope, depending on the project and demands.
I guess my rambling point was that I'm not a big fan of generalization, where people are quick to dismiss certain movies as all mocap, knowing that a lot of it is keyframed. The recording process is not animation, but if the material sucks then you end up doing it by hand, and that's still animation to me. So my ego is being hurt when keyframe work is being dismissed. :)

John Valley said...


Ok, I see your point and I agree. But, the question remains... is mocap the same as animation. I say no.
All the movies I've seen, mocap does the opposite of what it's supposed to do, which is make realistic movements. To me, the characters lack weight, expression and life. Yes, even "Avatar" lacked that feeling of real movement. I couldn't connect with those characters as believable natural moving beings. But, that's my opinion.
Key framed animation always looks better than mocap. Why? Because it's not the same. Key framed animation whether using reference footage or not, is based on understanding and creating the pose from nothing.

Jean-Denis Haas said...

I just don't lump the whole term mocap together, only because the entire process of a mocapped shot can include lots of keyframe animation. I agree that the recording process of mocap is not animation, just like shooting reference is not animation. But sometimes the mocap is crap, so you do it from scratch and it ends up keyframe animation.
And yes, mocap can look lifeless, absolutely. But so can keyframe anim. It all depends. Keyframe anim of stunt doubles in live-action movies look fake most of the time, so there I prefer mocap. Done right mocap will fool the audience more than keyframe.