Motion Capture (mocap) is the process where actor performances are captured as motion data, then applied to computer generated characters. An 'optical' mocap stage is a large room lined with infrared cameras, which track markers on actors wearing black body suits.
Choice of mocap for an animated TV series
During pre-production of Saladin: The Animated Series the big question was whether to use mocap or to keyframe the animation manually. After much deliberation - it was decided to use mocap. Reasons were - the character designs were humanoid, it was an action genre that would require a lot of complex performance animation. After a lot of consideration and research, we concluded that mocap would be a time and cost effective solution for the volume of animation needed to make 26 x 24 minute episodes.
Bye bye cartoon physics
The decision to use mocap meant we would have to forego those appealing cartoony qualities like squash, stretch, anticipation, exaggeration and snap. Instead the animated characters would move with realistic human motion. While it's true that mocap'd motion can be edited, in practice it's not that easy to manipulate mocap motion curves (think spaghetti), and in a busy TV series pipeline where artists are under the pump to meet daily quotas, not a practical option. It was a big decision stylistically, that set the tone for the look of the show.
Casting for actors
Not all actors are interested in playing mocap characters. While they will get a screen credit, their face will never be seen, and their voice never heard. Actors will be acting on an empty stage and will often be acting parts alone - unable to play off other actors.
Generally actors will need to be pretty athletic, with good physical performance skills, and if they have other abilities such as martial arts or dance then they may be able to double up and play other characters as well.
Actors are essential - they are trained in performance. And the same goes for stunt performers and dancers - so don't skimp on your mocap talent.
Directing mocap actors
Directing mocap actors is more about choreographing movements in time and space, than extracting authentic emotional performances. With the task of capturing thousands of shots for a TV series - it's a production line.
Before performing a sequence - play the animatic to the actors. Brief them on what's happening in the story at that moment, the emotion in the scene and your vision for the scene. Rehearse the shot. Let the actor interpret your instruction - allow them to have input. Help to locate their starting and ending positions on the stage. Rehearse the shot until you and the actor are ready to go for a take.
Timing of actions is critical - the animatic should have already been cut and timed to dialog recordings before starting any mocap - or at bare minimum the storyboard completed. Sequences are therefore in effect pre-edited - so if a storyboarded shot has the actor taking three steps, turning left and jumping - in three and a half seconds - then that's what has to be performed. There's little room for improvisation - the actors are essentially performing what's already been storyboarded and voiced by vocal actors.
When the mocap technician is ready, she will call 'standby' then 'recording'. Like a film director, the mocap director calls 'action' and 'cut'. This protocol might vary from one studio to the next.
The mocap technician will review each take first. If the take was technically good - without corrupt data caused by occlusion (explained later) or other system limitations, then it will be reviewed by the director and actor to assess whether it's a keeper or not. If not, subsequent takes will be made until a good performance with clean data is achieved. Sometimes a continuous sequence of several shots with different camera angles may be captured in one take, and later in the animation department, the shot cut up into the different camera angles.
Mocap stages will have some basic props and performance aids such as platforms and boxes to simulate stepping or climbing motions; mats for actors to fall or tumble on, and other props such as weapons (typically simple non-reflective wooden or plastic proxies).
The active area of the stage is a performance limitation - actions in the storyboard that need more space than the stage can provide will need to have workarounds figured out - such as cycling a running action or capturing big actions in parts.
Occlusion (in optical mocap systems) is when a marker is obscured from the cameras. Markers need to be visible by at least two cameras to triangulate their location in 3D space. Whether it's self-occlusion or occlusion by other players or props, the result is bad data and retakes. Generally, the more cameras and the fewer players on the stage, the less chance of occlusion. Unless you're on a Hollywood budget, you may be working in a small mocap stage with 12 cameras or less, in which case you can probably put only one or two actors on the stage at a time.
On a mocap stage there is no physical camera to compose the shot, and the actor/s may have no awareness of camera placement or shot composition. So the director has to imagine the performance as it will finally appear on the screen.
However, a well equipped mocap stage will have a virtual camera - a small hand held screen that acts as a viewfinder for the director to frame the shot. The scene is rendered in the screen in real time - and may also include virtual props and set. The director can use the virtual camera to get real time feedback and make composition, staging and lensing decisions. The virtual camera also has markers so it's position and movement can be recorded.
Mocap directors must understand screen direction and continuity if they are capturing scenes for continuity cutting. When all the shots are conformed in the animation timeline later, they must be continuous, otherwise it's back to the mocap stage for a retake, which means time and money (and an anxious producer).
Selected mocap takes are sent for 'clean up' before they can be added to the animation pipeline. Autodesk Motion Builder is the standard app for cleaning mocap data. If you're lucky your data will be pretty clean, if not there will be jerks and bumps caused by occlusion, reflections or other system glitches that need to be smoothed out.
Mocap vs keyframe - conclusion
So did mocap make it easier or faster to make 26 half hours of animation? Well... no. Mocap added a whole other layer of complexity where things could go wrong. The time taken to capture 8,000 shots and the cost of the mocap stage, technicians, stage hands, actors, clean up artists, mocap directors could arguably have been better spent on more animators, resulting in a more traditional animated motion and simpler pipeline. End of the day the realistic motion didn't look out of place on the stylised human characters and the co-production partners were pleased with the outcome.
I'd love to hear about your experience with or thoughts about mocap - leave a comment.
Steve Bristow is an animation producer/director based in Melbourne Australia.
1. Know about Malaysia's ethnic mix.
In an ideal world, the ethnicity of the person sitting across the table shouldn't matter. In Malaysia it sorta does. Malaysia's melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and indigenous races, each with unique quirks, is a potential cultural faux pas minefield for the hapless foreign traveller. Luckily Malaysians are a pretty forgiving bunch - but it's a good idea to know the basic cultural dos and don'ts to make a great first impression.
2. Whoa…"relak lah".
Meetings can sometimes be lengthy with a lot of small talk. Westerners who are focussed on doing a transaction quickly might be seen as pushy or impatient - take time to form relationships first. Being too direct may be interpreted as rude or disrespectful. Like people anywhere in the world, Malaysians like to do business with people they know and trust. Don't underestimate the need to establish a relationship before any real business can commence.
3. Business card etiquette.
Business cards or 'name cards' as they are called in Malaysia are essential meeting accessories. All meetings are preceded with an almost ceremonial exchange of name cards. A Malaysian will offer her name card holding it with both hands, face up towards you. Accept it respectfully with both hands and read it, before offering your card in the same manner. Place all collected name cards face up on the table in front of you where you are seated, for the duration of the meeting.
4. Food business.
In all business encounters food will be involved. It may be as simple as 'kuih' (local cakes) served during the meeting, it could be an offer of lunch at a nearby restaurant, or it may even be excessive hospitality in the form of an elaborate dinner washed down with abundant alcohol followed by a karaoke session. In any case, Malaysians love their food and they love to see foreigners enjoy it too. Do partake of the hospitality, and in some cases don't expect to do any serious business until after a lunch or dinner.
5. Be punctual - but don't expect everybody else to be.
In a country where the daily temperature range is only a few degrees (from sizzling to sweltering), where amazing food is a constant distraction, and where the mother of all downpours can erupt at any time and turn already bad traffic into an ankle-deep parking lot, it's no wonder that Malaysians don't really take an appointment time that seriously. They even have a name for it - "Malaysian time", which refers to the rubbery nature of timekeeping in Malaysia and helps explain why meetings often start late or last longer than scheduled. Don't get uptight about waiting a half hour in the reception for the boss to appear, or waiting an hour for a VIP to arrive at an official dinner, before the meal can be served.
6. How many meetings can you schedule in a day?
For a start forget about scheduling anything before 10am. In case you haven't noticed, in Malaysia everything starts late and ends late - shops open around 10am to 11am and close when customers stop coming in - usually around 10pm. A safe estimate is two meetings a day, maximum three. There are just too many variables to schedule more than that - possibilities of extreme traffic, extreme weather, extreme lunches and the effects of "Malaysian time" can torpedo the best-planned schedule.
7. Shaking hands etiquette.
Not all Malaysians shake hands like Westerners. A customary Malay handshake is a gentle clasp - no shaking - then releasing and placing the hand gently over the heart. A foreigner would not be expected to do the same, but anticipate it - don't squeeze and shake the arm off your Malay counterpart who might be giving you this traditional form of greeting. Most Malaysians will probably reciprocate with a regular handshake, but do anticipate the other type. Also, for some conservative Muslim woman (likely to be wearing a "tudung" or headscarf) it is inappropriate to hold the hand of a stranger in a handshake. Rather than risk her having to awkwardly decline to shake your hand, it's probably a safer bet to just greet her with a smile and nod of the head, and wait for her to offer a hand first.
8. "I showed up in a suit and everybody was wearing Hawaiian shirts!"
That's not a Hawaiian shirt - it's a traditional batik shirt, worn tucked out, which is considered formal attire for Malays in particular, or for any race attending a formal function. Business attire for meetings is suit and tie for men, skirt and blouse for women. Evening functions can be more casual and you can dispense with the tie. Women should be aware of Muslim sensitivities when dealing with Malay counterparts, ensuring clothes are modest and not revealing.
9. Understand and respect the concept of “face”.
Many Asian cultures pay great importance to the concept of “face”. It relates to maintaining a status level in the eyes of peers. Giving your client face is important in business and social life. Causing a business counterpart to lose face would be a deal-breaker. It's mostly common sense, but be careful to never criticise anyone in front of their peers; avoid sarcasm or jokes at the expense of a business counterpart (which may be perfectly harmless in western society); never treat a business counterpart as a subordinate; praise business counterparts for their great work in front of their colleagues - genuinely.
10. Apa khabar?
English is widely used as the medium for conducting business meetings in Malaysia. However, knowing a few local words will go a loooong way as an icebreaker, and will gain you respect for having made the effort. Some more conservative organisations such as government agencies might be more comfortable conducting a meeting in Bahasa Malaysia. In which case you will need to have a local colleague or ally, familiar with the business dealings, to interpret. Also, if a business counterpart is not fluent in English, forcing a meeting in English might not be giving him face - if they are seen to be struggling to understand proceedings. Although English is widely spoken and near-fluently by many people, some meanings can still slip through the cracks due to unfamiliar accents or colloquialisms, on both sides of the table. It's best to follow up with a contact report to make sure everybody is on the same page.
11. Expect to bargain over price.
For a Westerner, the quoted price usually is the price - for a Malaysian it's a starting point for negotiations. Always allow some room in your costing to give your Malaysian counterpart a discount. Having no room at all to move in a price negotiation is a deal breaker. It is ingrained in Malaysian culture to expect a small victory in any negotiation, as well as being great 'face' for the victor. Malaysians never pay the opening price for anything - they love a bargain, and probably love the chase for it even more.
12. Safety and Security issues.
Don't assume vehicles will stop at junctions when crossing streets. Don't make yourself a target for thieves by wearing expensive jewellery or watches. Avoid carrying briefcases or handbags in the street. Try to walk with a group at night and don't venture off well-lit streets. Be very careful of the deep, open monsoon drains, which are everywhere. Many a foreigner has come to grief at the bottom of one (including the author), which will absolutely bring your business trip to an abrupt end.
About the author - Melbourne-based Steve Bristow spent 20 years in Malaysia - 4 years as a consultant for broadcaster TV3, followed by 16 years as a co-founder and manager of three media production businesses in Kuala Lumpur. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org