Movement Analysis

Getting to grips with animation

28 Jul 2022

Animation remains a powerful tool to capture our imaginations. From the colorful fairy tales crafted by Walt Disney, to the imaginary worlds of Middle Earth, animation is the magic wand bringing these characters and landscapes to vivid life. 

Luckily motion capture technology continues a distinctive evolution across more than a century. The scope and capability to create higher quality visuals and experiences than ever before is achieved through the bleeding edge technology – how did it come about and why is it more popular than ever?

A history of moving images

To run through a brief history of animation, the groundwork for motion capture was laid in the 19th century by a photographer called Eadward Muybridge. He created the first documented moving image of a galloping horse using a pieced-together succession of still images. Then in 1915 Max Fleischer developed the rotoscoping technique by painting over live-action film footage which would become the basis of iconic characters and was subsequently used to animate Disney’s first feature film Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs

As animation appetite has grown, so has the technology to introduce new techniques, including:

  • Traditional: the classic animation style, meticulously piecing together hand drawn frames.
  • Stop motion: Akin to Muyrbridge’s example, this technique involved stringing together multiple still images to give the illusion of movement.
  • 3D: similar to 2D animation above, this technique instead uses computer software to create more engaging worlds and lifelike animated characters for feature length movies.
  • Claymation: a technique popularised by Nick Park and Aardman, claymation involves photographing every ever-so-slightly altered movement of clay figures over a period of time to create a sequence.

As animated movies rake in over a billion dollars at the box office, it is not only here to stay, but faces an increased demand for better-looking visuals amid timing constraints. This is where motion capture animation comes in. 

The growing appetite for motion capture

Mocap is essentially an advanced form of 3D animation, whereby a real actor’s bodily movements and facial expressions are tracked using cameras and sensors, modeled onto computer generated graphics to bring them to life. It was perhaps best brought to the masses through Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings franchise. While seemingly cutting edge at the time for its lifelike qualities, the body suit mocap technique goes as far back to the 1950s. It remains the most popular way of crafting the most realistic immersive experiences, especially for fantastical worlds in cinema, television and gaming. 

Traditional animation and the motion capture technique have distinct differences. Whereas the original ‘keyed animation’ would combine several separate drawings to create a moving picture, the same being used in 3D animation using separate frames, motion capture is far more fluid. Using markers on an actor’s body suit, specific body parts can be tracked in real-time using advanced cameras, capturing a whole sequence of movements that can be projected onto 3D characters at a later stage. 

Not only does it save from the labor-intensive work of creating works frame-for-frame, it saves costs by allowing the animator to correct any errors in a post-editing software scenario. There’s no added need to redraw to resequence when mistakes are made – mocap is far more actionable for both budding and experienced animators wanting quality visuals on a tighter budget. Even the classic pre-visual ‘ping pong’ suit technique has been upgraded whereby, without the need for suits, the actor’s physicality can be mapped and facial expressions modeled so that the resulting computer-generated imagery is as close as humanly possible. 

While gamers call for greater graphics in their video games, and movie buffs demand more realistic-looking creatures on the silver screen, mocap makes this possible by almost blurring the lines between what is animated and what is not. It remains the most pervasive current staple for producing stark graphics, as well as setting a precedent for future animators in a range of industries.
Want to learn how simple it is to create high-quality pre visuals and animations speedily? Find out more here.

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