Interview - Mocaplab


Motion Capture Studio

Rémi Brun

5 Cité Riverin
75010 Paris

Tell us a bit about you...When did you start the company? What programs/plugins do you use? How do you keep up with all the changes in technology?
Mocaplab started in 2007, but I started in the field of Motion Capture back in 1993 with ‘Actisystem’ first European Mocap company (I was one of the 3 partners). I then moved to London for 4 years offering Mocap services in Soho and finally moved back to Paris to join Attitude Studio to set up the motion capture facility(the largest in Europe at that time).
MocapLab’s vision is not to be an animation company using Motion Capture but to be the Motion Capture experts for all types of uses, including animation. So our focus is to keep up to date with all the mocap technologies, as far as we can. We are Vicon based, mainly but also have a NaturalPoint system, and are still looking into all the other solutions that we might use on projects, depending on the needs. We also use Vicon Blade, Motion Builder and a bit of Maya. We also use and develop our own internal tools, many plugins for Mobu and also for Blade and our own eyetracking solution (hardware and software). We have also developed internally our own solution for finger capture. We see ourselves essentially as Motion Engineers, as others are Sound Engineers.

Can you give us an insight on the motion capture process? What do you need and how extensive is the setup (from cameras to software and actors)?
The process is quite straightforward in itself, but gets more tricky when it comes to connect it to the client’s pipeline and assets. When is the layout done, who is in charge of it, what about the voices recording, and the fine tuning of the props, the 3d models of the characters compared to the casting, etc ? Of course there is the shooting session that is the highest moment, both in terms of energy and artistic creativity (and pleasure and adrenaline). But the key of a project is also very much into the preparation of that shooting session, technically and culturally, for everyone to understand the process and the stake of each step. Then the biggest part in terms of work is the post-processing, as, at Mocaplab, we intend to work with the client as far as possible to help him get the best from our data in his movie. So we include in our process the integration and the definition of the movements (eyes, fingers, props included, contacts, facial sometimes) in the 3D scene with a final validation after the framing. So we make sure that we take responsibility for the whole mocap animation result. That pushes us to be very involved at an early stage of the project to help the client build the right pipeline and assets to make sure that we, Mocaplab, will be able to deliver the best final result (not just a good mocap but a mocap that is used the best way as far as possible).

What was the goal for The Prodigies and what was the most difficult part?

With all our projects, most of the time, the most difficult part is the connection with the outside. The client, the production team, the director… Most of the time they are not familiar with the technology but also the culture of movement. Many have a strong experience in Keyframe animation, or Live Cinema and it is hard to make them forget their first culture and its advantages and understand all the new advantages and the huge possibilities of mocap, without getting lost in the huge freedom that the 3D tools offer.
So the key is to be involved in the project from the start and to have the time to explain, show, de-dramatise, test, demonstrate and reassure the partners involved.

Did you use the same techniques from one project to another? What changes?
Unfortunately each project is new and the approach has to be reinvented each time. Yet the tools are always very similar, the pipeline, the validation process, the set up are different but the key rules and processes are the same. Movement is a delicate matter, the human brain is so familiar that it thinks everything is easy, even the most demanding retargeting. And as we have different approaches for body, faces, eyes, fingers and props, as well as for the facial rigs we use, no project is the same. The clients are also very different. From projects with urgent and short timelines with limited expectations and money, to the most demanding with time and means, from the non technical visionary producer to the expert 3D or video game company.

What was the biggest challenge in Portraits de Voyage?

For Portrait de Voyage, it was the same. A special and unique project of its own, a very limited budget and strong time constraints (21 different shoots of 2 hours, scattered along 3 or 4 months, depending on actors availability). And actually they weren’t trained actors, but everyday people who had a real story to tell about their country and their culture, chosen by the director to be interviewed. They had no idea about 3D, mocap and all the rest of it. Some of them, yet played the game beautifully and very naturally, with their own accent in their speech and I feel the same about the “accent” carried through in their movement.
The key to this project for us lay in a very good connection with the director, Bastien Dubois, who knew so well what he was doing, both artistically and also in 3D, so the pipeline was straight and with just the minimum.

You master design techniques for feature films and commercials. Can you list some important differences between working for an advertising agency and working for a film production?

For us the main difference lies in the fact that commercials are very short and agencies are used to changing their mind and trying so many different solutions in a very short time span. Where as feature films are concerned (at least European ones) they can’t afford to change their mind on each shot for the whole duration of a movie. The preparation is much stronger and the project is usually better defined. This is important for us as the mocap shoot is the place where most of artistic decisions about acting take place, and once it is finished it is hard to modify it. In advertising the teams often dream of changing everything anytime.

For the Amnesty commercial, the solution was to shoot a lot of data, so that the director could try many different options. We used many different combinations of moves to get the best result with the final render that was also in itself quite a challenge requiring various testing and adaptations. But it was possible as we were working mainly with crowds.

The Pens ad for Amnesty received a great feedback. How did you start working on this project? What was the most difficult part? How long did it take?
It was short between the first call and the shooting. We knew the production company Troublemakers TV very well. We had already worked with them on a very successful TV commercial for CCTV a few years ago among many other. We felt it would lead to another stunning result. There was a great energy to this project, with an extremely talented technical team. The result is there, winning a Cannes Lion award at the Cannes Festival!

How precise is the motion capture process and how much post-animation is involved?
We like to say that we “record” movement, not capture as we try to keep as much as possible the original “signal” in the process. We try to be as accurate as we can (and sometimes it goes below a 10th of a millimeter). Our Vicon T160 cameras with 16 millions pixels, the highest definition on the market today, allow us to reach this level of accuracy - this 10th of a millimeter is necessary.
So on some projects we can say that there is no Post Animation. Of course there is the work of our talented Mocapers, but their job is to find the best parameters, not to do post animation all the time. They do post animation on some projects or when there is a lot of retargeting involved, but we strongly believe that motion capture doesn’t necessarily require post animation.

Which 3D model (or motion capture) do you believe was the most difficult to achieve? (How did you do it?)
This is a hard to answer as we face challenges all the time. To capture horses in a barn with half a day to set the studio up is quite a challenge, or to capture a pole dancer who has to keep its dancing pole shinny for technical reasons (when shininess is a no go in mocap) is also a challenge, (or motion capturing Sean Connery in the Bahamas for a 4 sec commercial with no real mocap system) but this is nothing compared to the 3 year challenging research project we had to deal with; the motion capture of sign language. As you can imagine, Sign language requires the capture of both hands and 10 fingers, and these hands and fingers spend their time dancing in the air, very quickly and with a lot of sharp contacts and accurate positioning between them or with the face.
In addition to this sign language uses also the facial expressions and the eyes direction to create a meaningful movement. So it requires excellent finger capture with facial capture and eye capture. That was an amazing challenge and I believe, from the huge amount of feedback we have received, that we have succeeded in this area.
It is important to note that the challenge for capturing the best quality on a actor are very similar. So the quality we achieved on sign language is directly transferable to projects with actors.
The level of quality demanded is very high because if you fail to respect the accuracy, the meaning of those moves are changed. Each movement has a meaning and if you distort the move you might distort the meaning and the final user, a deaf person, will find it unbearable. Remember the days when we could listen to synthetic voices from the computer. We could understand the meaning but we would find it unbearable to listen to. So the pressure on the quality of our mocap was huge. We could not stop half way.

What’s the one project that you received the most praise for?
It really depends on the way one considers praise. Portrait de Voyage had a lot of very positive comments about its style and approach, but remained very much in the arty world (Renaissance and Eve Solal in 2001, when I was in charge of the Mocap department at Attitude Studio received a great amount of positive comments in the press). The virtual Parisian Eve Solal went around the world, with Russian and Chinese newspapers writing about her. The feature film Renaissance was and is still receiving great comments for what it was at the time. But our recent Sign language demo was, in its own world a very successful project. We have had huge feedback from our Vimeo channel, and even people calling us at 5 am in the morning from the other side of the world wanting to do movies or projects with our technology. As for the awards or the number of viewers, the last Amnesty International Commercial (even if the CCTV commercial did very well too), is actually the most seen and most rewarded project winning a Bronze Lion at the Cannes Lions 2014 for the Film Craft Award Category.

How involved is the interview process at Mocaplab?
Hard to answer. We just have to make sure that people who apply here have an eye for movement (as others have an ear for sounds) and also that they do not dream of being animators (in our projects the creative part of the animation is 99% coming from the actors). There are so many tools and possibilities. One has to enjoy testing and experimenting with them, like a child playing with LEGO.

With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that a 3D Designer has in his portfolio or skills? How important is it to have a proper education in this field?
As there are very few motion capture training facilities, it is very hard to have a good background education in this field. And as I believe mocap is neither an animator's or programmer’s job, nor a biomechanics, or a stage job but a combination of all of these. It simply takes time and dedication to learn all these skills. And as the market is still not really well established, the job itself is still moving. So adaptability is key. And stamina. And these can derive from a real enthusiasm and passion for the “movement matter.”

If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
The most rewarding part of the job for us is when the actors are amazing. So to work with great actors on great projects, or with amazing dancers or performers. I’d love to have seen also the way it happened at the end of the 19th century when Marey and Muybridge started it all which led to the start of the movie technology.

What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
Plenty. Dog capture for a video game next week, a documentary on the "last enemy of Caesar", Feature films pilots, Sign Language TV series, Digital Doubles Research projects,etc. That's the great pleasure of this job. It is endless and takes us in so many different fascinating projects and we also work on sculptures involving movement that take us around the world.