Connecting the dots, the birth of Motion Capture

Sometimes the best ideas come when you are not looking for them. Case in point. In 1995 I was visiting a company interested in having us produce a marketing video for them. They made precision measurement equipment for the medical and aerospace industries. They showed me their stuff, led markers they placed on an object and sub-millimetrically measured their positions in 3D space. They took these measurements at a high and variable frame rate to measure movement. OK. That’s interesting.

So I asked them if I could glue these markers onto a human being? They didn’t see any problem other than discomfort. So now my mind raced ahead knowing that the most difficult and time-consuming animations to produce were human motion, facial expressions, delicate hand motions, the familiar and subtle nuances of human expression.

I raced back to the office and asked my 3D animator if I gave him 3D coordinate data, X, Y and Z for a particular point at 30 times a second, could he attach that data to an animation wire-frame model. He said he could write a little program to do that and move the animation with the data. I quickly borrowed the measurement equipment, wired the hands of a stand up comedian/piano player friend of mine with a few dozen markers and every joint in his hands, set it all up and asked him to ad lib some piano playing. I insisted he make mistakes, fool around, do stuff that was out of the ordinary and recorded both the data and the audio of the piano and gave it all to my animator and left for the night.

The next morning I came in and asked if he had got anything from the overnight render. He suggested I sit down and played the video. Good thing I was sitting. I swear I actually levitated as I watched these goofy looking cartoon hands playing the piano exactly like a human would. We recorded in real time what would have taken a skilled animator several weeks to produce only a close similarity to the nuances of the human hand.

Today this is called Motion Capture. It is big in the movie industry with producers like Lucas film, Ron Howard, etc. Back then I thought we had invented it, only to later discover that mere handful of companies around the world were also experimenting different technologies for this purpose. We were certainly the first in Canada to make it work.

My point to this blog is look around, be observant, and don’t stop with the manufacturer’s intended purpose. Imagine how you can connect the dots and combine things to create something new. It works. Who knows, you might discover the next big thing.