Will Motion-Capture Take Over?

One of the things that is easy to lose sight of is the fact that technology and techniques are constantly developing and improving. At the beginning, animation went from paper to cels to colour to multi-plane. Even the drawing aspects of the process changed, with inkers disappearing as the xerox process eliminated the need for them. With the arrival of the digital revolution, everybody who worked on paper was suddenly under threat as the computer meant an entire production could be done without felling a single tree (at least theoretically).

So how will animation technology continue to develop over the next decade or two? Here’s a theory.

The first thing to consider is that the cost of computers relative to power will continue to fall at a fairly rapid pace. Bear in mind that modern smartphones are more powerful than supercomputers were not 20-25 years ago, so in another 20 years we should be carrying around devices that are as powerful as perhaps a whole data center is today. By that extension, the processing power employed by studios or even regular desktops will, in all likelihood, allow for real-time animation on par with what Pixar puts out today.

So if real-time animation is possible within the next decade or so, who stands to gain the most from it? Traditional animation (in the real sense) depends on an animator creating the movement. Right now that is normally done at a level of detail that is well below the finished product, with layers of detail added after the movement is completed before everything is rendered. Real-time animation will at least allow an animator to see how their work will appear as it will in the final stages of design. DreamWorks is already moving in this direction but they still have a lag for rendering. That will disappear in due course.

But what about the other aspect to real-time animation? Traditional proceses will benefit, that is certain, but what if costs, budgets and public demand pushes things in the other direction, towards motion-capture?

Think about it for a second. Shows such as King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Futurama and others contain plenty of movements that are normal for any human. Mo-cap would allow studios to dramatically cut costs if they can utilise cheap actors in suits to do these movements and save the costly animation for the parts that actually require it. It’s a hybrid model of sorts as the efficiencies of both techniques are extracted. Once you throw in the real-time abilities on top of that, you’ll have the ability to churn out a TV show in dramatically less time than today.

Combined with the shift towards online viewing and web series, the opportunity to serve up animated shows (and potentially movies) in much less time and cost than they are now will be almost too tempting for studios and networks to pass up. Expect to see motion-capture becoming more and more commonplace in animated programming, and remember, they don’t have to be human either. Mo-cap is equally applicable to other anthropomorphic characters with a bit of tweaking on the part of the animation team.

Why theorise on all this? Animation remains a successful industry with more variety now than at any point in the past. Employment is good (although wages could be better) and the quality is continuing to improve at a rapid pace. The reason is simple. Technology and its associated changes don’t wait for anyone. Think of all the inkers who got the floor taken out from under them thanks to the xerox process. Animation as a skill will not go away, but the way in which it is conducted will change. Mo-cap is likely to become much more prevalent, especially once the uncanny-valleyness of it is figured out, which it will.

Are you in a position to adapt? How can you ensure that audiences won’t accept mo-cap once is becomes good enough or commonplace enough that they can’t tell the difference between it and traditional animation? I’m sure these are all questions that the Animation Guild has already thought about as they make a push into the VFX sphere, which is what studios are more likely to consider folks utilising mo-cap rather than animators, which is what they sort of are.

Anyway, just something to think about today. Have you any thoughts on such a potential future for animation? Share them in the comments below!

  • andrew

    No I will not adapt. Zemeckis tried to produce only motion-captured animated films and only one of them was barely successful, and yet another was so bad, it wound up costing his studio! Yes, mo-cap isn’t at the right place to look convincing yet, but it may very well in the future. In the meantime, I have been learning to hand-draw and manually animate my whole life and will proceed to keep learning it! Why is technology suddenly advancing so quickly?? People are in a rush to re-learn how to walk again! It doesn’t ever give you the time to become a genius at your craft!

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