Poetry in motion

Poetry in motion

By Develop

October 8th 2007 at 10:34AM

It might have been around for a relatively long time, but that doesnâ??t necessarily mean that the motion capture industry is slowing down as it reaches maturity. Ed Fear takes a look at the latest movements in the fieldâ?¦

This generation means ‘more’: it’s now an undeniable fact that stretches across all of the game related industries. The motion capture industry is no exception, but it’s also seeing other changes as well – changes in demands, changes in accessibility, and a constant change in technology.

One thing that many are seeing is more and more requests for detailed hand and facial movement capture, as the fidelity of modern graphics increases to an extent where accurately-captured performances are required to minimise the ‘uncanny valley’ effect.

“Finger capture and full-body is now a must-have for a lot of clients,” explains Mick Morris, MD of mocap service provider Audiomotion. “We also have quite a few large clients doing full performance capture – hands, face, full-body and audio.

“It’s leaps ahead of the technique where you record the facial capture at the voice recording stage – you get a beautifully synchronised performance from your actors just as you would if making a movie.”

Mike Stilgoe, TT Centroid’s director of operations, agrees: “The need for facial and hand motion capture is more prevalent as we see more dialogue-driven production.”

In previous years Centroid’s workload has been heavily weighted towards games, but has seen more and more of its business come from the film and television sectors in recent years. In a striking parallel, Stilgoe notes the way in which motion-capture data is used in games is also dovetailing with other fields thanks to gaming’s increasing cinematic and narrative bent.

“The type of work we used to do entailed a lot of ‘in-game’ motion and looping, but these days there has been far more demand on contracted pieces of work for completed ‘live rendered’ cut-scenes – which includes motion capture as well as a host of other services, such as key framing, model building and auditioning the correct actors for the job.”

The other area in which motion capture is being used more is in pre-visualisation, adds Animazoo’s marketing director Jo Hull: “Our systems, being set up so that a single operator can make quick revisions, have started being used a lot for pre-visualisation work.”

MO’ MONEY, MO’ CAPTURE

But perhaps the biggest developments in the motion capture industry of late is the availability of lower priced kits, such as Animazoo’s portable gyroscopic systems or the entry level equipment from optical specialists Vicon, leading many medium-sized developers to purchase their own solutions.

It’s certainly an understandable trend – no matter how skilled your outsourcing partner may be, doing everything in-house avoids the many planning issues and communication difficulties that can easily spring up when working together with another company.

“Investing internally means you can continually run shoots as and when you require, tweaking shots and scenes with no pressure on external studio times,” explains Vicon’s Andy Ray.

“You can quickly get in and get your work done with no external company constraints. It’s also easier for developers to see the scope for including more motion capture in their work. It becomes a tool for development, as well as a valuable addition to their portfolio for investors and publishers.”

On the other hand, those companies specialised in mocap are just that – specialised – and therefore know exactly what they’re doing. “We have spent ten years in the entertainment industry perfecting the service; it’s what we do well, and that’s why our clients use us. The old adage – do what you do best and outsource the rest – has never been truer than today,” says Morris.

“Our clients don’t want their financial situation pressurized by such a heavy capital expenditure. Plus, it’s never been a case of just pressing a few buttons and off you go - you need to hire or retrain staff to run the kit and setup working pipelines into whatever software you are using. If it was easy then everyone would be doing it.”

Stilgoe shares the concern that the equipment wouldn’t be used enough to justify the expenditure. “There are very few games development companies that could keep an in-house facility suitably busy, motivated or enthusiastic. It could easily remain a toolbox left in a corner until needed.”

Not only could it lie unused, adds Artemdigital’s Richard Hince, but technology constantly progresses – something the mocap studios are placed to be able to solve.

“Superficially, on big projects, it might seem attractive – but when you look at the situation over the long term, fully cost space and manpower, and factor in things like management issues and the need to keep everything current, the situation is much more complex.

“Yes, for some larger developers with lots of internal resources it might make sense – but by patronising motion capture facilities most developers get absolutely everything they need, in a timeframe that suits, without having to spend a fortune.”

Even Vicon, which sells direct to studios and services companies, concedes that using mocap partners will always have a place in production. “Outsourcing will always be popular,” concedes Ray. “It all depends on the specific needs of the project. If the person you want to mocap is in Europe, for example, and your studio is in the US, then you’d simply outsource the work to a European studio.

“It’s worth pointing out that some of our customers do both. They’ll own their own system in-house but still outsource some of the work, maybe based on the amount they have on or the complexity of the shot.”

SOFT LENS

And what does the future hold for mocap? There’s a significant amount of growth and research in marker-less technologies (see ‘Magic Markerless’), but for ordinary marker capture the future seems more stable. “We’ll see an increase in existing capabilities – in other words, even more of the same – more capable cameras, more custom sensors, and better 3D processing,” says Ray.

A possible future source of huge productivity improvements won’t come from the hardware, however, but from the software that accompanies it. “Hardware and software will improve incrementally in the future, but the main benefits will be reaped from software developments,” explains Hince – a theory mirrored by Animazoo’s continual updating of its software and Vicon’s investment in the new Vicon Blade software, a single unified toolset designed to let games developers and others using motion capture rigs have tighter control over the data they collect.

Further on the non-hardware front, Image Metrics’ Nick Perrett agrees that improvements will come from better pipelines and improved methodologies.

“I think that if the mocap companies actually spoke to the programmers and the artists a bit more, and looked at facial animation right from point of capture, right through to the way it’s compressed – there’s so much scope for improvement in that. It’s not something that is a radical new thing in technology – it’s just new business processes.”