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Traditional Animation Vs. Motion Capture

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Often when I talk about animation in movies or commercials and I mention mocap or traditional animation, people are generally confused as to what I am talking about. It’s understandable. Before I studied animation I had little knowledge to the differences between the two and how to recognize each. Now I pay much closer attention to animated films and video games and it is easy for me to see the Traditional Animation vs Motion Capture Animation differences between the two. Hopefully after reading this, it will make much more sense and help you take notice of the two.

Traditional or “keyed animation” refers to how the first processes for animating were executed based on the twelve principles of animation. Creating pose to pose animations for a scene and then filling the in between poses (tweening). For a traditional 2D animation, each frame would be a separate drawing. For the 3D animator, each frame would be a separate pose for the character being animated. Very tedious work.

Mocap or motion capture works differently. An actor is dressed in a skin tight suit with visual markers placed on specific parts of the body to track movement.  A special camera records and tracks the movements of the markers and then animators apply those movements to 3D models using various software. You may have seen this in the ping pong ball suits people wear in some behind the scenes footage of movies like “Lord of the Rings”. This make for a more realistic, natural and life-like movement for a character, but lacks some of the visually expressive principals of animation like squash and stretch, flowing arch movements, anticipation and exaggeration. With the advances in technology in the animation and video game industry and more realistic characters, motion capture is being used more and more. So is that a good or bad thing?

I seem to play tug of war with that question. I feel that the motion capture technology is appropriate in certain situations and applications, but also feel like it has become over used and is an easy way for calling a movie animated. Take the character Gollum from “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy. This is a perfect example of how motion capture should be used. Actor Andy Serkis performed each scene in “The Two Towers” in a motion capture suite. However, Andy’s performance was only the basis for the animation. In many cases, motion capture does not record hands and feet very well (at the time of the making of the movie) or facial movements. They then relied on a team of 18 animators to create the facial emotions and movement of the feet and hands giving an end result of a digital character that meshes well with real actors. I felt his was very successful because the intention of the film was to look lifelike and realistic and have a seamless blend of CG and live actors.

In movies such as “Polar Express” and “Beowolf”, the character seem to ride the fine line between CG characters and real life actors. This is where some animated films turn me off. The characters just seem to have a creepy look to them. They are doing the exact same thing the actors are doing and even look just like them. It makes you wonder why they make two movies during the process, one with the real actors and one with the CG characters. When I watch these, I don’t get the sense that I’m watching an animated picture, but more that I’m seeing a glorified puppet show. Then you have terrible commercials like “The General Insurance”. They are applying realistic looking movements to a very cartoonistic character and it just looks bad. Stop being lazy and ANIMATE!

I think this is why companies like Pixar and Dreamworks remain at the top of the game. They both rely strongly on the traditional principles of animation and still keep their character concepts and designs very simple and seem to retain that cartoon style. Next time you watch a movie by either company, notice the way the characters move. Notice the arching movements of the arms, or the way the character might stretch as it takes off running, or the strong pose it’s in while making a point or delivering a joke. These are all things that the animators have thought of to make the performance of the character more interesting than if they had just used the movements of an actor in a motion capture suite.

I have a much greater respect for these types of animated movies and just flat out think they are more interesting to watch. I feel like I’m watching real animation. I don’t get that with movies that are primarily motion capture. Motion capture technology is continually progressing and CG characters are to point now where they are completely realistic, and that’s where it should be used.  So regardless of the industry continuing to use motion capture for the good, bad and often ugly, traditionally animated films will always rein superior in my book.

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Ed Sharp

Ed brings 15 years of traditional and digital media sales experience to the agency, giving us a perspective most agencies don’t have. When he’s not working or seeking new knowledge, Ed hangs out with his wife, two kids, two dogs, one cat, and a hamster. And yes, the cat and hamster are best friends.

Chaney Given

Chaney is a talented and accomplished designer and illustrator, who has expanded his skill set to include motion graphics and video editing. With nearly a decade of experience, his client work includes Waterstep, Baptist Health, the Archdiocese of Louisville Catholic Schools, First Harrison Bank, and many more