In Motion
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 11 (Nov. 2009)

In Motion

Students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts acquire state-of-the-art mocap traning.

USC student Ben Hansford incorporated the lessons learned from a performance-capture course by creating a spec commercial called “Hand to Hand” that combines mocap, CG, and live action.
(Check out the video here)

It has been two years since a graduate-level performance-capture course was first introduced at the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts (SCA), led by A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express, and Beowulf director and Monster House producer Robert Zemeckis. Recently, Computer Graphics World spoke with co-instructor Eric Furie to find out how the course has evolved.

The 15-week course, which started in January 2007, came about when Zemeckis approached the University of Southern California with the idea that students should be exposed to performance capture as a filmmaking technique. To get the program off to a good start, he told the school he would be willing to get involved in the first class.

Word spread, and students were anxious to sign up. According to Furie, digital systems specialist and adjunct faculty for motion capture at SCA, there is typically a large demand for the two-semester course. “We fill the class every year,” he says. “It’s a production class, with students learning everything from calibration, to processing data, to the application of data in different environments.”

Furie first became involved in motion capture with the opening of the Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts in 2001. One of the first people trained on the Vicon motion-capture system installed at the Center, which also houses the Electronic Arts Game Design Lab, Furie began leading workshops for animation students interested in rolling mocap into the curriculum.

Furie emphasizes the skills students need in order to successfully learn motion capture. “We need them to come in with a solid foundation in 3D animation,” he stresses. The intro class is in the fall, and in the spring the advanced class focuses on performance capture. Once students are grounded in the technical aspects of motion capture, they can begin to figure out how to use it as an art form.

 “SCA is divided into six divisions, three of them focused on media creation: production, interactive, and animation,” Furie explains. “With most SCA students in one of these three divisions, the majority of them are interested in using mocap for projects they’ll be working on later, including games, art, or live-action and animated films.” While primarily for graduate-level SCA students, the course does accept some undergrads.

The stage is a 10-by-10-foot motion-capture volume outfitted with a 20-camera system from Vicon. Eight cameras are dedicated to body capture, while the remaining 12 are designed for 180-degree facial capture. For processing data, the system uses Vicon iQ and Vicon Blade, a single unified tool set for acquisition, solving, cleanup, and more, along with Autodesk MotionBuilder for character rigging.

“The mocap stage is really a lab space,” says Furie. “Once students have been trained and cleared, they’re allowed to book time to do motion capture by themselves.”

Taking the Stage

Ben Hansford is a student in USC’s Film Production/Directing program. “As a director looking to make a career of integrating live action and VFX, having access to motion capture as a student opened amazing doors and infinite performance possibilities,” he says.

Hansford completed a spec commercial, called “Hand 2 Hand,” as one of his student projects, which marries motion capture, CG character animation, and live action. He learned how to work with motion capture firsthand in the USC program (go to to see a video of his work). The mocap class at USC starts out in the first semester by covering various essential software tools of the trade: Vicon iQ and MotionBuilder, as well as Autodesk’s FaceRobot and Maya. In the second semester, the students were able to apply all of that knowledge to real-world projects, with ample access to the mocap stage. 
“Eric Furie, who teaches the class, is a filmmaker and technology guru, and taught me that no matter how great anything looks, you always have to tie it back to the story. Not to mention, when we needed access to a larger stage to do some high-flying rig-based stunt work, Eric connected me with a local facility, Vicon House of Moves, which was incredible,” says Hansford. “USC’s stage feels like the Ferrari of school stages, but House of Moves—that was like having your own private jet to Paris.”

Hansford says the students got to meet with Zemeckis a few times throughout the semester when he took the motion-capture class. “[He] was enlightening to the point of being mind-blowing,” he says of the famed director. “We’d get to go on his sets and see what his virtual camera was seeing on the mocap stage and how he was dealing with actors. For Zemeckis, the technology was invisible and the story was king. And his process for working with actors on that bare stage: experiencing that alone was worth my four years of tuition.”

Elyse Kelly is a second-year student earning her MFA in animation and digital arts at USC; she had her first exposure to motion capture as an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon in the robotics department on a Vicon system. “Having a mocap stage available to USC students provides a great opportunity to learn about how production is being done in the industry right now.”

According to Kelly, students take advantage of having access to the stage: They go in and test things out, “and it’s always exciting to see them get suited up and experience seeing themselves move in 3D space, in real time,” she adds.

Moving into the Future

Plans are under way to expand the SCA mocap volume to several times its current size, and several cameras will be added to the system, making it into a true performance-capture stage. “We take a lot of cues from Zemeckis’ Imagemovers,” Furie explains. “The goal is to build a small-scale version of how they do their work.”

First exposed to mocap at Carnegie Mellon as an undergrad, USC MFA student Elyse Kelly is extending that experience. Above is a still image she created for her performance-capture course. Legendary film director/producer Robert Zemeckis is a co-instructor for the class. 

The Vicon system was first installed at USC several years ago when the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts opened at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2001, but until 2007, hadn’t been used for courses focusing specifically on mocap.

“Originally, we were working with the Vicon MCam system because that was what Zemeckis was using on Polar Express, and we were emulating his system,” explains Furie. “When the larger curriculum came online, we were well invested in Vicon, so growing and upgrading with them seemed a logical choice, and now we’ve been using Vicon equipment for almost a decade. From my perspective, it’s the right tool for us to be teaching with. It’s simple enough for students to grasp the technicalities fairly quickly so that they are not hampered by anything other than their imaginations. The goal is for students not to be limited technologically.”

Although the motion-capture course at SCA is entering its third year, Zemeckis is just as involved as ever. “He visits the lab several times a year, and also allows students to visit the Imagemovers stage, bringing classes there a couple of times a year so they can see a full mocap studio in action,” Furie says.

The course runs two semesters, and students do a lot in class. During the first semester, they create 30-second pieces on their own, which they expand to two or three minutes during the second semester. These projects often will be rolled into animated or live-action thesis projects, and the school has even had some students include mocap in their games.
“The concept behind the curriculum is that this is a new way to make media. It’s not live action, and it’s not animation. In some ways it’s a hybrid of the two, and in some ways it is its own thing,” says Furie. “There is a new world that is evolving out of motion capture that allows for its own set of processes, but also its own way of story­telling. We view mocap and performance capture as another way to tell stories, stories very difficult or even impossible to tell in any other way.”

As Furie notes, motion capture is an evolving technology, and one only has to look at the industry to see lots and lots of heavy hitters jumping in and using it in different ways—from Zemeckis, to Steven Spielberg, to Peter Jackson. All of them have dived into this medium, but we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. “If you’re a live-action filmmaker and you step into motion capture, what you’ve done is separate out a lot of processes that in the live-action world are combined,” he says. “So live action combines performance with lighting to create one piece of media. From a production and educational standpoint, what we’re really excited about is the idea of separating out these processes.”

Furie notes that Vicon has been helpful in supporting SCA and making the curriculum viable. SCA also works with Autodesk and Adobe, along with some other companies, which not only provide the school with tools, but also help develop methodologies and the right way to teach them. “We really want students to see the broadest picture possible as they prepare to enter the industry as film, game, and animation professionals,” he concludes.

And at USC SCA, the students indeed are getting a lesson in state-of-the-art technology that is well worth learning.