Motion Capture class gets a taste of 3D animation

Taylor Thornberg
Spectrum Editor

Professor John Henry Blatter shows the animation process using the motion capture system. Photo by Ali Jones.

If you walk through the glass doors and past the galleries to the back of the Depot on Broad St., you’ll find a studio space where VCUarts students in the interdisciplinary motion capture class have been learning 3D animation techniques over the last five weeks.

It’s the same animation you’ve seen in recent Disney movies such as “Frozen,” or in video games like “Call of Duty.” John Henry Blatter, an assistant professor for VCUarts, taught the class and invited me to the studio to try out the system after the students had their final critique.

Knowing almost nothing about animation, I wasn’t sure what to expect going in. As Blatter explained, the system has 10 cameras, each one strategically placed so that every part of an actor is visible as long as they’re within the square space marked out on the floor. The cameras then shoot infrared light onto the actor who is covered with reflective markers, the reflected light is then captured by the cameras and can be recorded in takes. The cameras use trigonometry to triangulate where the subject is within the space.

Before we could begin, the system had to be calibrated so that the cameras knew the confines of the space. Blatter placed five markers strategically on the floor so that the cameras knew where the floor was and where the elevation might be slightly different between markers. Then it was time for me to suit up.

I slipped into what felt like a catsuit, complete with gloves, booties and a cap to cover my hair. Blatter then used Velcro to tighten the knees and elbows of the suit, and explained that in order to accurately record joint movement, the suit had to be as tight as possible on those areas. Then, we attached 53 reflective Velcro markers to my suit, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. These would outline my bone structure and record the movement of each part.

Blatter said you could also set up the space to have eight cameras capturing only facial movements, which requires a mask and a few more reflective markers.

The next step was to calibrate the system to my shape, which required me to stand in the middle of the space and go through a series of yoga poses while the cameras picked up the reflected infrared light. This allowed Blatter to create an animated skeleton from my outline, which was then applied to the subsequent takes so that a character would appear on screen and move exactly as I did. As Blatter explained, this was much easier than drawing animations.

“The system then allows for a live actor to be able to control the animation as opposed to going through and manually keyframing the actual movements of the character,” Blatter said.

Then came the fun part, which was doing a take of whatever movements I wanted to make, so I busted out a few dance moves. While I didn’t take my character any further, Blatter said that students taking the class would then transfer the data to Mudbox, a 3D virtual sculpting tool that’s part of the Maya animation suite, to create a character.

“Mudbox showed them how to create a character and shape them and model them, even the skin of them, however they want their animated character to look,” Blatter said.

The movements captured in the takes are then applied to that character, and an animation is created. While the system is mostly open to use by VCUarts students, I’m not the first non-arts student to explore the system. The school of music brought a class to the motion capture studio to research technique fall semester 2014.

“Last semester I worked with Susanna Klein, who’s a violin teacher in the school of music,” Blatter said. “We used the system in a class to look at bowing techniques, so that the students could see sort of the skeletal structure rather than just looking in a mirror to be able to see how the body moves. We were able to (attach reflective markers to) the performer and (were) able to look at the bone structure and posture and weight and how it’s distributed as they played.”

Taylor Thornberg, CT Spectrum Editor, gets suited up to explore VCUarts’ motion capture animation system. Photo by Ali Jones.

VCU’s MCV campus has a similar 16-camera motion capture system centered on a treadmill, which is being used in research to track the progress of people in physical therapy recovering from a disability or injury. However, Blatter said, that system outputs different information as it is not creating an animation.

The exciting part of the system Blatter mentioned is that very few schools besides VCU have it, and the closest motion capture studio is in Baltimore, with a 250-camera setup.

While the five-week interdisciplinary motion capture course just ended, the next class just for kinetic imaging students starts soon after, with more classes being planned for future semesters. Currently, VCUarts students are welcome to rent out the space for projects or experiments for any of their classes. While Blatter said he doesn’t know exactly what the future of VCU’s motion capture system will hold, it’s in the students’ hands.

“I’m excited to see what students will come up with,” Blatter said.

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