Cinema grad students cross digital frontier


Media Credit: Jeffrey Long | Daily Trojan
Action! | Professor Eric Furie demonstrates how animation can be computer generated in movies.

Published in The Daily Trojan, February 2, 2007.

The director of films such as “Forrest Gump” and “Back to the Future” is teaching a new graduate studies course on revolutionary moviemaking technology at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

This spring, Robert Zemeckis has teamed up with digital systems specialist Eric Furie to launch and teach a new class, “Motion Capture Performance.”

Zemeckis has been driving the widespread use of the motion capture forward in the professional world, utilizing this new medium in his recent feature films, “The Polar Express” and “Monster House.”

“We’re ecstatic to have (Robert Zemeckis) come and do this,” Furie said. “He brings sheer experience in directing this new art medium, but he also brings decades’ worth of filmmaking and directing experience, which is extremely valuable.”

The School of Cinematic Arts, which has been consistently ranked the No. 1 film school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, is the first film school in the United States to utilize this state-of-the art technology.

Motion capture performance, also known as performance capture, has been gaining steady ground in transforming the way animation is made in the movie industry, allowing actors to become the animators.

The idea is to capture the movement of performers and transform it into animation. In the past, animators had to fastidiously draw or program each blink, breath or bend of a character, Furie explained.

Now, filmmakers essentially can direct actors for animation reels just as they would in a live-action movie.

Motion capture also allows for the subtleties and details of human movement to be rendered.

“It’s a powerful new tool that allows you to capture the nuance of human performance, not just in terms of big body gestures, but of detailed facial expressions,” said Richard Weinberg, cinematic-arts research associate professor.

Motion Capture technology has been used in the past in the fields of medicine and engineering, but using is it for filmmaking is a new avenue that is quickly opening up, Furie said.

“Zemeckis is one of the only directors really pushing this technology at the moment, so it’s interesting to see his perspective of what he’s seeing in the future for cinema,” said Matt Clausen, a master’s candidate in film animation, who is enrolled in the class this spring.

The new method is about using the synergy between traditional directorial techniques and cutting-edge technology, Clausen said.

The class of 12 graduate students will be taught not only the technicalities of learning how to use the breakthrough equipment but also the entire process of producing a movie, from casting actors to editing camera movement, Furie said.

By the end of the course, each of the cinema-television students will have produced a two-minute motion capture film as their final project.

Their shooting and producing will take place in a newly set up motion capture room in the Robert Zemeckis Center for Cinematic Arts.

The center was established nearly six years ago to keep students on the cutting edge of digital technology for filmmaking. The motion capture room was put together about a month and half ago after four companies donated high-end equipment to facilitate the new program, Furie said.

The way the technology operates looks as if it were a scene from “Mission: Impossible” movie. The idea is to outfit an actor in a black leotard, with reflective tracking markers the size of cherries strategically placed at the joints.

When the performer is ready, the lights are turned off and 20 high-end Vicon cameras around the room all simultaneously point to the center area where the actors execute their movement. The cameras then target infrared signals to where the actor is and the markers bounce the signals right back to the lenses.

The animation software then creates a virtual skeleton of the movement that just occurred, a foundational blueprint of an animated movie.

“We’re really just introducing another whole medium for our students to use to tell their stories, and (telling stories) is what our school is after all about,” Furie said.

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