12 April 2011

In the magazine I did for the site, last November, I wrote a short article about motion capture in Tomb Raider. Last month I had the chance to attend a motion capture session that the British Museum and Goldsmiths University held.

Motion capture is recording the actions of someone using sensors. The actors or actresses are put into an outfit with several retroreflective markers which bounce infer red light which is then picked up by a series of cameras placed around the area. The cameras then send the information to the computer which then makes a 3D image of the person move.

The T pose start position I had to do for 15 minutes, because I accidently broke everything.

I travelled to the British Museum in London to take part in a motion capture session, which lasted two hours. Even though this wasn't an extensive full look into motion capture it did give me a little taster about the mechanics behind it. I became interested in motion capture when I was playing Tomb Raider Underworld, Lara's movements were very real, and I wanted to learn more about how they were able to capture everything to add more realism to the protagonist.

I arrived there forty minutes early with my friend and since Starbucks is across the street, we decided to have some coffee, which I consider to be the best but also the worst decision I made that day. Firstly I love Starbucks and this leads me to buy expensive beverages filled with caffeine, which I strongly approve of...besides the really expensive part. The only problem I had was that some of my family once worked at the museum, and I was trying to tone down the weirdness. Weirdness is good, but I don't think that explaining why Alan Wake would have been even more scarier with squirrels instead of birds would have been classed as sane at the museum and I slightly feared that they would end up carrying me out on a handmade stretcher, similar to how they transport the Egyptian mummies through the departments.

We entered the museum twenty minutes before the session and decided to go and see the Rosetta stone. Doing work experience here had a benefit, not only is it one of the most gorgeous museums in London. I mean just look at this view, I had to pass this every day:
Well I'm bored just looking at it. This is the right side of the Great Court at the British Museum, I took this photo from the balcony.
But after it's closed to the public you can see all the artifacts that you couldn't see before. The Rosetta stone is the most popular artifact there, Eygpt once asked for it back but the museum refused mainly because it's awesome and without it they would lose a lot of visitors. The crowd reminded me of the zombies out of the DeadRising games and therefore we decided to take refuge underneath the Great Court area where the talks were taking place. (If you're ever at the Museum, go to the Rosetta Stone, you will know exactly what I mean!)

The session began with the instructors going through the basics of motion capture and they explained that they used it for films such as AVATAR and Beowolf, and video games like Uncharted, before showing us the the suit. The suit that the actor wore consisted of a hat, jacket, and trousers all with the little reflected markers which were connected with Velcro and easily detachable. The area itself was no bigger then a few metres but there was markers on the ground so you know how far you could go. There were eight cameras in the room in fixed points on the ceiling. If you are camera shy, being in the suit and having your motions captured probably wouldn't have been easy, all the cameras pointed at you and there were two huge screens showing what you're currently doing and during my session there were photographs being taken. Normally I am, but I really wanted to do the motion capturing. One screen had a 3D person walking around on a grid, whereas the other showed the character, that would be the final product.

I'm not sure if he's punching the creature or pointing...Nevertheless it was a pretty cool talk.

We were placed into groups of two and threes, and sent out of the room after choosing from four different characters and backgrounds we wanted. We then had to come up with a two minute story which our character star in. One group did a romantic story, another did a horror story, and I was filled with caffeine... Starbucks was perhaps my worst decision of the day. Me and my friend decided that the knight (which was the character we had chosen) after returning from battle would do a victory dance, and understandably we received very strange looks from the group that was trying to do the horror story. I then lost a bet with my friend and had to be placed into the tight mo-cap suit, I didn't mind all that much to be honest. Before recording, we had to show that we were ready, to a complete stranger, so I had to dance...for two minutes without a break.

I was also wearing a t-shirt that had an angry cupcake on it saying "Cupcake of Doom, recoil in fear from my evil butter cream centered filling." that combined with the coffee pretty much ended my goal to appear sane. 
After I blamed the coffee and the everyone agreed. We were then lead into the small room in which I had to put on the motion capture suit which was hard work considering that the 2 minute dance had absolutely tired me out (it was very early on a weekend). The motion capture suit is extremely hard to take on and off, mainly because everyone put it over their clothes and that day I was wearing jeans underneath, and pretty much all you could see was the 3d model hop around the screen backwards looking very confused as I tried to put everything on. The main difficulty wasn't because it was tight, because it wasn't that much, it was being very careful not to knock or drop any of the sensors.

It was also an incredibly fiddly suit, it had gloves to go over the hands. I had difficulty just with the hat let alone the entire suit. Plus my hair had to be placed in a bun because it would cover some of the sensors otherwise.

I was the first person to use the mo-cap since everyone was afraid of breaking it and we were ready first and directly after getting into the suit, I broke everything. At the start I had to preform the T pose for at least twenty minutes while the computer recognized me and a further fifteen jumping around the area making sure that one of the reflectors worked. Unlike the Lara Croft motion capture actresses, I was working with 2D so if I went sideways I would be flat, which was a little strange and took a while to get used to.
This was the area where I did the motion capturing. The photograph was during the 35 minutes where I broke everything. Although it wasn't so bad because I got to watch the little 3D character which was pretty awesome. I believe this was near the end when I decided that the best way to get the computer to recognize me was to act like a zombie...I actually wish I was kidding.

When we were able to record, the coffee kicked back in and the character ended up exploding randomly at the end since I accidently stepped outside of the lines. The screen of the final product with the 2D character didn't interest me as much as the one on the right. On the right was a huge monitor which was operated by two computers, that screen showed exactly my actions on a 3D model which was awesome but also kind of off putting when you're doing the recording.

My little 3D character on the screen. It's not showing my actions as clearly as it was when I was moving around since this was near the start when the limbs decided to migrate to opposite corners of the screen, but I have my hands on my hips. The levitating cubes on the screen are the cameras located in the room.

Afterwards we edited the movie on the computer, added a storyline, music, and text, and then exporting it using an Adobe product (which name currently alludes me EDIT: Adobe Premiere Pro) I then also did an interview saying what we done and how was it like in the motion capture suit (I'll try to find it if it's online)

Thanks to everyone at the Samsung Digital Discovery Center for doing the session, I had a really awesome time, and it was a topic that I had an interest in for a while but I didn't really have a chance to do motion capture before this. So thank you for setting up the cameras and being really awesome.

Here's a photo of me:

DID YOU KNOW? For the movements of Lara Croft alone they had to bring in three different people to do the movements. Chrissy Weathersby Ball, Heidi Moneymaker and Dana Reed

The British Museum: Samsung Digital Discovery Center Flickr
Taken by Daniel McKenzie-Cossou


  1. Great article :) Hurrah for the wonderful British Museum (a.k.a the Natural History Museum if you're Core).

  2. Hey Jaden,

    Thanks so much for this fab article on the motion capture workshop and your visit to the museum. I love the photos you included which were taken by Daniel McKenzie-Cossou. Even though the capture area was small, it took ages (about 10 hours) to set it up correctly. The cameras are all strung together with cables that have to connect perfectly and synchronise with each other. It was amazing to see it in action...BTW, the video editing application we used in the workshop was Adobe Premiere Pro.

    Glad to hear you had fun, even if you overdid the coffee a bit :-) Seriously, having Starbucks across the street from the museum entrance is an occupational hazard!

    Hope to see you at digital workshop at the museum's Samsung Centre!

  3. Quite interesting, and with a cute squirrel =)

  4. You were so lucky that you had the chance to try this! Also amazing article, very well written. I bet you loving having a first person impression of how this all works.

    I wish I had gone, but I didn't know about it =( bah! would've been so much fun!