Motion Capture

Today at the 2008 Machinima Filmfest I did a public demo in which I used a sensor device we invented in our lab to capture the motion of my hands, in order to make two animated characters walk around on a screen. It was a simple thing, this digital puppetry, but very important to me – bringing together two different areas that I’ve worked on, both of which I really care about.

The sensor measured the pressure from my hands and fingers. By varying position and pressure of my fingers, I could make each hand convey goals (walking, leaning, squatting, …) to one of the characters. The characters were “smart” enough to understand how to turn those pressure signals into human-like movements.

We had a panel discussion afterward, and somebody asked whether the goal for Machinima (a genre that records the actions of characters in a computer game and uses the results to make movies) was greater and greater realism.

I answered that people are not trying to make the actors in movies look realistic. The realism comes about only because the filmmakers happen to be using the materials at hand – actual people. The goal for a medium should not be to slavishly imitate another medium – that would miss the point. A book glories in the infinite possibilities afforded by printed words on paper, the theatre by the immediacy of seeing a live human before you, cinema by using moving images of real people to create a dream reality.

Machinima should be finding its own true nature, not trying to imitate conventional cinema. From what I’ve seen at the festival this year, I think it is well on its way.

2 thoughts on “Motion Capture”

  1. And what do you think the true nature of Machinima is or should be? When computer games – at least the ones that machinimists typically use – are trying to convey more and more realism, wouldn’t it follow that Machinima is inevitably going to go the same direction?

  2. I think the true nation of Machinima should be generally be to convey an emotionally expressive narrative – almost the definition of the goal of any linear narrative medium. Of course there are exceptions – there is always room for non-narrative or other avant-guarde variants in any linear medium.

    Machinimistas are scavenging from a medium that was made for a different purpose – maximizing interactive fun. Sometimes that involves lots of realism, and sometimes not (eg: “Little Big Planet”). The goal of computer games is not maximizing realism, it’s maximizing interactive fun and engagement. One option is a kind of realism, but it is far from the only option.

    I think that Machinimistas will continue to use whatever new platforms come out that give them the greatest opportunity to convey emotionally expressive narrative. Those might happen to be platforms that go for realism, but that’s certainly not a given. There is an unfortunate syndrome whereby computer game designers sacrifice emotional realism by trying too hard for visual realism without getting it quite right. That’s what throws things into the uncanny valley – which can actually produce a step backwards in audience buy-in.

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