Dear L.A. Times: Motion Capture is Animation

Hey folks – I know I’ve been silent lately – I’ve just been quite busy and under water (or as I prefer to say, “creatively engaged”) but I read an article by Steven Paul Leiva in  the LA Times on the subject of how motion capture is not animation, and it made me surface. This is really just my opinion, but I feel the Animation Producer writing this op-ed is not even listening to his own words as he writes:

“The New American Oxford Dictionary defines “to animate” as “bring to life.” The late, great animation director, Chuck Jones, with whom I worked off and on for several years, often defined animation as, “To breathe life into the lifeless.” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Disney’s Nine Old Men, called animation — and titled their book on the subject — “the illusion of life.” And many animators define animation simply as “frame-by-frame filmmaking.”

By this argument, even Pixar’s work does not qualify as animation. If someone has to sit there doing frame-by-frame work for it to be “animation,” then it would disqualify almost all 2D and 3D animation that is not done traditionally (hand drawn).  Much of the time, programming is used to bring life to characters (such as using physics to make body parts jiggle as they move) or to create group behaviors in schools of fish. Motion graphics animation relies heavily on the use of particle systems, which are entirely driven by calculations – Math is doing the work.

So who is really doing the animation? Yes there is a principal animator, but much of the work would never be lauded without these programmed additions to truly breathe life into the full body of work.

None of the above definitions can be applied to performance capture, which, as its name implies, captures and documents a real motion or performance in real time by a live actor and does not create the illusion of that motion or performance through frame-by-frame filmmaking.”

You can spin it any way, but a 3D character is lifeless until an animator somehow brings it to life. In the case of motion capture, the actor, in-part, takes on that role just like the programmer does in the previously mentioned cases. He’s using his body to create animation, not just his hands. Should that disqualify the work from being animation? Why does one need knowledge of animation software to be an animator if he or she can help create something that feels alive? I wouldn’t call them an animator in the credits, but they are partially filling that role – same as the programmer.

“In 1979 I produced a program for the Los Angeles International Film Exposition called “The Animator as Actor.””

Perhaps it’s time for a new course called “The Actor as Animator?”

I do understand the Levia’s sentiment, though. Personally, I find motion capture quite creepy because, while the body motion looks right, realistic human facial animation is just not there yet (see Tron). But, that said, I disagree with the author’s conclusion –  it doesn’t disqualify it from being animation. It usually (IMHO) keeps it from being GOOD animation, but it is animation nonetheless.

I think the About the Author area of the article sums up my point:

“Leiva spent more than 20 years programming, promoting and producing animation.”

How can you PROGRAM animation, unless you broaden the scope of what “animation” means?

(it has been pointed out to me that this probably means programming, as in setting up programs, for TV and festivals. Duh.)

Technology changes the nature of art. Aesthetics aside, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck – even if it was wearing a motion capture suite with webbed feet.

BTW – Thanks to Austin Madison at Pixar for tweeting “At the end of the day, the artist creating the character’s performance is the animator.” It helped organize my thoughts on this subject.

11 thoughts on “Dear L.A. Times: Motion Capture is Animation”

  1. Brilliant Aharon, I was discussing this very point with a friend the other day.

  2. This reminds me of the early days when people started doing art and image manipulation with computers and the arguments that “it wasn’t really art” because a computer was involved.

    The watershed event of CG film making is largely accepted to be Jurassic Park, and yet even then the “animation” was done in part using a “motion capture” puppeteering device created for traditional stop-motion animators to interface the computer. I’d personally love to be able to mocap myself performing instead of animating with keyframes. I think most animators, particularly those of us who go back to the pre-digital era, are “acting” with more than just their faces anyway. I’ve even done stances and poses for comic book drawings and illustrations.

    I really can’t see the logic that mocap is not animation. Mocap is another form of animation, a means of driving a performance into a puppet, model, or drawing. Frame-by-frame is not, and really never has been, a necessary portion of the definition.

  3. I agree with you on this point, Aharon. However, I think when it says the author has been programming animation, I think it refers to choosing what animated films play in film festivals (ie, determine the festival program).

    I think mo-cap type FX work well as a replacement for make-up FX, ie Gollum or King Kong, where you are trying to create a realistic character in a realistic world. I don’t understand why it is being used as a replacement for animation, though, which is a medium about caricature.

    Animation, ie cartoons, are about funny drawings and funny motions. I don’t know why filmmakers (I’m looking directly at Bob Zemeckis here) feel the need to create caricatured art/characters/environments and then put realistic motions in there. It isn’t using the animation medium effectively – and it also isn’t using live actors effectively. I would much rather see the actual Jim Carrey acting than to see it interpreted through the computer. However, a skilled animator taking Jim Carrey’s exaggerated expressions even further in caricature would be awesome.

  4. People tend to forget that computers, as well as motion capture software, are only tools. That’s it. People use these tools to create animations. Who’s to say which tools are legitimate for “real” animations? If you say, “you used motion capture, therefore it’s not real animation,” then I can say, “you used pencils, therefore it’s not real animation.”

  5. This guy references Disney animators; I may be wrong here but didn’t some of the earliest Disney feature-lengths involve the animators doing some old-school roto over live action footage? Isn’t that the origins of motion capture?

  6. This is a simple case of one of two factors:

    or both.

    The Dinosaur Factor & or The it’s not fair Factor.

    I’ve heard this sort of commentary for years in many areas
    but it is never more prevelant than in the computer arts
    and film making sectors.


    Thank you for bringing this article to light, it should be
    commented on.

    I’ll leave you all with this:

    I am not an animator, nor do I care who said what about
    what animation is. As for dictionaries well they like some
    people can get out of date quite quickly.

    But here it is simply.

    If it’s not a living thing and you make it move – IT’S ANIMATED.

    It does not matter how you got there.

    That’s not an arguement, it’s just a simple fact.

  7. I am an animator and I have worked on two of Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture films. Performance Capture is NOT animation. they may use the same tools, but It’s not the same.

    In animation the animator makes ALL the choices of movement.
    In performance capture, an animator adjusts the performance to make it ready for the film. there are no acting choices there made by the animator.

    It’s not the same. Sorry.

  8. Robert Zemeckis control issue of not allowing animators to do any animation with the captured data is entirely separate and formidable.

    Otherwise, in most cases motion performance capture is not easy, is not a ‘shortcut’, and involves a lot of ‘traditional’ cg animation with many creative decisions by animators and character TD’s. It is used very well for certain needs of filmmaking as a tool for telling stories.

    To say that any one person (especially oneself) has the ability to judge what is and isn’t to be called ‘animation’ or ‘art’ is quite immature.

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