Real-time Animation with Motion Capture

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Hero image: Motion Workshop's Shadow System

Motion capture is the process of recording movement of a body to be reproduced digitally. Systems range from DIY (you can do some cool stuff with an Xbox Kinect), to full-blown professional studio setups or advanced sensor suits that cost tens of thousands of dollars. 

You’ve seen it used in movies and video games for years now, and the technology is only getting better. Now, you might be visualizing a sound stage and green screen setup, with an actor in a goofy suit trying their best to not regret their career decisions. And you’d be right!

At least partially. This is an example of an optical system of motion capture, one that uses markers attached to the wearer recorded by a network of cameras with overlapping ranges. Then a computer does some math and boom, you’ve got a digital model of your actor. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (if you haven’t seen it you’re not my friend) was the first feature film to use real-time motion capture on an actor in a scene with other actors. These systems are expensive, and entire studios exist to provide just this service to big-budget productions that have the capital to invest.

If you’ve been paying attention, Fat Pencil Studio can’t hope to match this level of production, and we really don’t need to: what we do is in a bit of a different wheelhouse. There are, however, lots of possibilities with newer, simpler systems of motion capture that require way less equipment and upfront investment. 

Inertial systems of motion capture use sensors to track points in space on a suit or series of wearables and feed that information to be reconstructed into a digital model. Examples include the Motion Workshop’s Shadow system and the Rokoko Smartsuit Pro. The advantage of these over an optical system is that you don’t need multiple cameras and a dedicated studio space. Many systems can livestream directly to Unreal Engine for real-time character animation. We've already got some experience with Unreal for scene rendering:

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We used Unreal's TwinMotion to visualize this complex intersection.

The technology is constantly evolving, and there are now professionals using forensic animation for crime scene investigation and accident reconstruction. Much of Fat Pencil's work involves posing human figures for scene visualization (we’re pretty good at it) so I'm looking forward to an opportunity to integrate motion capture into our workflow soon!

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Jannine Hanczarek is a Technical Illustrator at Fat Pencil Studio.