Animate your dance career by moving into motion capture

Character Dance

By Lisa Jo Sagolla
Story from BACKSTAGE-The Actors Resource

June 6, 2009

Have you ever fantasized about being an animated cartoon character? Or perhaps you’re just looking for a new outlet for your dance skills. If so, you may want to think about motion capture. “It’s used in TV commercials, films, video games, and it’s growing more and more popular all the time,” says Alysha Wheeler, founding director of A-Max Entertainment, a Los Angeles agency representing motion-capture talent. “And dancers, because of their athleticism, and particularly if they can do some stunts or martial arts, are the best performers for it.”Motion capture is a technological process being used in much of today’s computer animation. “You go into a big room where you’re surrounded by 2-D cameras,” Wheeler explains. “You’re wearing a spandex suit with balls of reflective tape attached to it with Velcro at the locations of your joints. As you move, the cameras pick up the balls’ reflections, which go directly into computer software that translates the motion into 3-D animation right then and there, in real time. Back in the day, it would take an entire year to create an animation sequence that we can now do in seconds.” The movements, however, appear only as a bunch of dots until the body of a character is layered onto them by an animator. “So while I’m out there moving, I could be a superhero muscle man one second and a secretary the next. They can put any kind of animated character on me as I move.”A former jazz dancer, Wheeler began doing motion-capture work about eight years ago with Vicon, a company that produces motion-capture equipment. “They used me and some of my friends to do demonstrations for potential clients, to show how the system works. Mo-cap people love using dancers because, first of all, dancers don’t mind wearing spandex. Also, dancers know their bodies better than anyone, and they take direction very well.”While the pay rate is quite high—from $500 to $1,000 a day depending on the job—Wheeler admits there are some less-than-ideal aspects of the work that dancers should consider: “For example, performers do not get residuals from doing motion capture, because your face is not seen. Though I think SAG is working on that. And of course there’s the anonymity factor.”Dancers looking to pursue motion-capture work will find opportunities not only in film-centric Los Angeles but in New York as well. And the technology is used not just in animated movies like The Polar Express and Happy Feet (which “starred” the movements of famed tapper Savion Glover) but in video games, some of them produced in Gotham. Wheeler emphasizes that it’s important for dancers interested in this work to get some experience first by doing smaller projects, such as commercials or video games. “That way,” she says, “when they’re looking for dancers for the big film projects, I can tell them that you already have motion-capture experience.”

While dancers are very adaptable and usually have no trouble moving in the motion-capture suit, there are a few practices you have to get used to. “For instance,” says Wheeler, “when you do a motion-capture scene, you always have to start and end with a T-pose, which is just standing with your arms straight out. It’s just data for the camera to know when you’ve started and finished. And also, before we start everything, we do what we call a range of motion, where you stand…and do isolations, like head rolls, shoulders, twists, fan kicks, two walks forward, and then your T-pose.” Improvisational skills can also be important, as you may often be asked to simply try various movements. On more-elaborate projects, professional choreographers are employed.

Entertainment is not the only field embracing this technology. “A lot of college dance departments are beginning to buy motion-capture systems to use as a tool in analyzing dancers’ movements,” says Wheeler. Because the system provides a 3-D view of the dancer in motion, it can be much more effective than video in revealing flaws or weaknesses in a dancer’s technique. Motion capture is also used in the medical field to aid in injury rehabilitation.

Those interested in learning more about working in motion capture can contact Wheeler through her website, “That’s why I started my company in the first place,” she says. “I wanted to create more in-between jobs for dancers. And I’m currently in the process of collecting more talent.”