One of the most famous uses of motion capture in media is Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Released in 2009, it grossed over $2.9 billion. Since then, the use of motion capture has only grown and is now a mainstay element of digital media.
It’s easy to see why. Mo-cap brings characters to life in a way that is, at best, difficult to replicate with traditional animation methods. From the Na’vi in Avatar to Thanos in the Avengers movies, mo-cap allows developers to create realistic, engaging characters.
Entertainment is richer for it, but there are challenges to working with mo-cap.
The Cost of Realism
Avatar 2, the 2022 sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time, cost $460 million – not including marketing.
High costs are associated with movies that rely heavily on animation – Star Wars, Jurassic World, and many recent superhero movies all cost hundreds of millions of dollars. While this isn’t all due to animation – actors fees, location costs, travel, extras, and other factors all contribute – motion capture and animation are expensive and eat into budgets.
Studios must procure specialized cameras to detect markers on the motion capture suits, converting physical movements into digital data. Commercially available camera systems can cost upwards of $250,000 – custom systems used by large studios likely cost even more.
Those suits are also expensive. These are embedded with sensors, crucial for capturing the essence of human motion. A $2500 suit is considered cheap, with many camera-based options costing more than $15,000 each.
Alongside these, there’s the software to process and convert raw motion data for animators to work with.
The acquisition is just the initial expenditure. Technology in this space evolves rapidly, necessitating regular upgrades. Like all equipment, the hardware requires consistent maintenance to ensure optimal performance, adding to ongoing costs.
Once a studio has all the equipment, it needs to hire actors to perform the movements, directors to supervise, and developers to translate those movements into digital avatars. On top of that is the electricity bill from running all those cameras and computers. It’s a challenge for even large studios to keep costs down.
However, as the technology improves, it becomes more accessible. Motion capture studios often rent their spaces to movie or game studios, reducing infrastructure costs while giving those teams access to high-quality equipment. Mo-cap is becoming more affordable for indie and solo developers, with basic rigs costing around $2000.
The Limits of Technology
While advancements in motion capture technology are impressive, it’s important to note that it still has limits. Issues with capturing data, hardware limits, and adapting the data all present challenges to creators.
One of the foremost challenges of mo-cap is capturing the subtleties of human emotion. While large, pronounced movements are easy to record, small facial twitches, a slight quiver of the lips, or the subtle crinkling of eyes can prove difficult to translate digitally. This gap can lead to characters that, while moving realistically, might still feel lifeless or robotic.
‘Drift’ refers to discrepancies between captured data and the actual position and movement of the real-life model. The sensors might lose alignment or calibration over time, or during particularly complex movements, resulting in a ‘drifting’ effect. This means the digital character doesn’t precisely mirror the actor’s movements.
Fixing this involves ‘hand-dubbing’ (replacing the original footage with a new take) or manually recalibrating or fixing data points.
Foot slide in motion capture is a common issue where the animated character’s feet appear to slide or glide across the floor, instead of having a firm, realistic contact.
This problem occurs due to inaccurate capture or translation of motion data onto the character model.
It can also result from inadequate synchronization between the captured motion data and the animation rig, or due to imprecise calibration.
Sensor Technology: Foot slide might occur if the sensors fail to accurately capture the motion, especially the contact points of the feet with the ground. Correction often requires post-processing the captured data to manually adjust foot positions or use algorithms to ensure realistic foot placement.
Camera Technology: In camera-based systems, foot slide might occur if the cameras fail to track the markers on the feet accurately or if the motion data is not accurately mapped to the character rig. Correction can involve tweaking the animation rig, adjusting the calibration, or post-processing the motion data to ensure accurate foot placement.
While drift and foot slide are distinct issues in motion capture, they point to inaccuracies that can arise due to the limitations or errors in either sensor or camera technologies.
The strategies for correcting these issues might overlap, like using post-processing algorithms to amend the captured data.
The primary difference lies in the inaccuracies, cumulative positional/orientational deviation for drift, and unrealistic foot-ground interaction for the foot slide.
Occlusion occurs when the camera doesn’t pick up a marker, usually because it’s blocked by the actor’s body or an external object.
Setup is, therefore, crucial. Mo-cap studios will use multiple cameras to minimize blind spots or perform subsequent manual animation to fill in the missing data.
Equipment Limitations and Suit Constraints
The physical gear used in mo-cap can sometimes constrain an actor’s movement, potentially affecting the authenticity of the performance. Furthermore, sensors and markers have their own thresholds and sometimes miss rapid or extremely subtle movements. These issues can usually be avoided by using high-quality equipment.
Every animation project is unique, with distinct requirements. Customizing mo-cap data to fit a specific character rig, or adapting it to suit a particular scene or environment, is not always straightforward. While mo-cap provides a great baseline, animators must make manual adjustments to ensure the captured data aligns perfectly with the project’s unique needs.
Motion capture is one part of the larger machinery of animation and film production. As such, there are factors, external to the mo-cap lab or studio, that can significantly impact the motion capture process.
In today’s fast-paced entertainment industry, studios are often pressured to deliver projects under tight deadlines. When capturing data, scheduling constraints can mean fewer takes, potentially compromising data quality.
This then creates more corrective work for the developers and animators. The ‘crunch’ has recently become synonymous with AAA games such as Cyberpunk 2077.
The pressure to get games done quickly means studios haven’t the time to animate projects during regular working hours, leading to forced overtime and an incredibly stressful team environments.
Injuries to Actors
Motion capture heavily relies on the physical performance of actors. An injury, even if minor, can halt or disrupt mo-cap sessions.
Schedule Delays: Injured actors might need time off, pushing project timelines.
Potential Need for Stand-ins: In case of significant injuries, studios might have to consider stand-ins, which brings about its own challenges in ensuring consistency.
Data Inconsistencies: An injury can alter an actor’s movement, leading to inconsistencies when comparing data from different sessions. This issue is compounded if a stand-in is used – animators would need to match the new and old actor’s movements.
Stakeholders, be they producers, directors, or clients, might change project requirements after capturing mo-cap data. This could necessitate reshoots or extensive post-processing. The Justice League reshoots cost an additional $25 million, where most of the third act (heavily featuring motion-captured main villain Steppenwolf) was redone.
Unexpected budget cuts or financial constraints limit the resources available for motion capture, potentially impacting the quality or scope of a project.
Delivering Digital Realism
Motion capture is a remarkable testimony to the synergy of technology and human performance. Yet, as with any technology, it’s not without its hurdles. Studios grapple with both the intrinsic limitations of the equipment and production pressures.
But, when those obstacles are overcome, motion capture delivers breathtaking experiences that captivate and enthral audiences worldwide.
How Performit Live Helps
Creating high-quality MoCap on a budget has never been easier.
Using motion capture from generic libraries is a huge time investment, requiring painstaking animation merging and keyframing to fill in missing movements. Location-based shoots are expensive.
Performit Live makes it easy to capture professional performances at an affordable price. After downloading the motion capture app, simply book the perfect performer for a time that suits you, then direct, capture and download your live performance. It’s that easy.
Ready to bring your unique characters to life with the magic of motion capture?
Get the Performit Live app now and start creating unforgettable animations. Let Performit Live help you tell your story.