Centroid: shooting stars
From James Bond to Harry Potter and now John Carter, Centroid has contributed to the action sequences of some of cinema’s biggest heroes. James Clarke talks to operations director Phil Stilgoe about the mocap studio’s recent film work and its newly forged links with higher education
Phil Stilgoe has a lot to feel good about. He’s the founder and operations director of motion capture studio Centroid, which has just completed work on the first Indian feature film to use motion capture, and has provided mocap content for the upcoming zombie apocalypse movie World War Z. Considering the mocap landscape and the visual effects industry in general, he observes: “It’s a good time right now. VFX houses in the UK are winning so many awards.”
Over the past few years, Centroid has contributed mocap content and motion analysis to a number of high-profile movies. There was the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, for which it mocapped stunt performers’ rehearsals for the film’s opening action sequence as reference for camera positioning and performance layout. Then, for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Centroid generated material of a 16ft digital troll ringing the bell on a child’s bicycle. More recently, the studio has worked on films including The Wolfman and John Carter.
When Stilgoe and I speak, he and his team have just completed work on the aforementioned Indian feature film, Kochadaiyaan: The Legend – more on this later. Stilgoe says that Centroid’s work is increasingly being called upon for feature film projects, while the company has also developed a portfolio of work in relation to higher education, training and research. Suffice to say, from where Stilgoe stands he’s enjoying an informed and positive view of the motion capture landscape.
Centroid goes into motion
As mocap technology evolves, Pinewood-based Centroid is offering more adventurous solutions
Centroid began in 1996 when Stilgoe’s father (who worked in post-production) took a gamble and invested in several mocap cameras. It wasn’t long before Stilgoe took on the role of mocap supervisor, and he remembers that the late 1990s were a great time to go in and learn about the technology and the aesthetic possibilities of the format.
His first job was mocapping actor Gary Oldman for the 1997 film Lost in Space. “Mocap had a bad reputation in the 90s,” Stilgoe notes, characterising them as a time when they were unable to capture an abundance of data, had no access to pre-viz, and worked with marker data that was hard to view. As mocap began to assert itself as a commercially and creatively viable format for the realisation of digital characters, Centroid was in a position to take advantage.
Stilgoe makes a general observation about motion capture technology that he believes has always held true: it’s an efficient, effective approach to generating a walk cycle or equivalent, but is less suited to creating stylised animation. “If you want human movement, use mocap,” he says. “I think The Adventures of Tintin was very good because it was a mix of caricature and realism.”
Motion capture makes possible action that might otherwise be expensive and complex to achieve on a full live action set
So how does the company approach a new commission? “Working on a project begins with Centroid receiving artwork from the client,” Stilgoe says. “Then we’ll speak with them about characterisation and performance and, at that stage, we’ll try to get an idea of what the character will do. On John Carter, we did lots of tests on stilts and the control of two pairs of arms. We had a dress rehearsal where Willem Dafoe and the other actors [portraying aliens] all came down and got on stilts. We had CG Tharks [alien creatures] in MotionBuilder, and this live composite gave the actors the chance to see themselves in the desert and to review the nuances of body movement and gesture.“ Stilgoe explains that they use a live virtual camera, with the director of photography on the mocap floor, allowing for a very fluid creative arrangement that enables the performers to play to camera. Each project at Centroid involves a standard mocap process in which marker data gets cleaned up before being passed for application to an animation rig. For John Carter, for example, the marker data was handed over to frequent collaborator Double Negative. Headcams recorded the subtleties of full facial performance so that it could then be combined with the mocap material of body movement.
“Our primary software is the mocap that does the live solving,” Stilgoe explains. “We’ll set up a live composite in MotionBuilder, using a real plate that’s already been shot. The actor sees the live action; it’s really nice when we can take mocap close to a live-action shoot.” Centroid has also used this approach as a fundamental process on its work for the TV show What’s Your News? for the television channel Nick Jr. Stilgoe explains that the MotionBuilder software is a good bridge between mocap and Maya and Autodesk. “It’s brilliant for animation on top of mocap data, and for loop cycles.“
Outside the studio
Real-time pre-viz, used on the studio floor during data capture, allows mocapped performances to be shown, in real time, in the context of a given shot
While mocap has been a studio-based endeavour, to date, Stilgoe explains that a recent advance for Centroid has been upgrading to include 24 cameras that work outdoors. “We’ve been working in sports halls, and they’re usually not conducive to mocap,” he says. With the aesthetic and pipeline fundamentals of mocap well established over the last 10 years, a next step for Centroid is to apply the hardware and software to location filming (a system that was used on Rise of the Planet of the Apes), opening up a whole new world of possibilities.
Stilgoe explains that with the exterior location mocap technology, the shutter speed and greyscale can filter out background light. He also notes that the technology will increasingly make for a more organic creative process: “Mocap can feel sterile, so going on location makes things more playful. It means we can work on location on children’s television, for example.” He says that kids’ TV in particular allows for much more freedom when it comes to combining live action with animated characters.
In tandem with its move towards more location-based mocap work, Centroid is also starting to explore the application of mocap in an underwater setting. “The camera will currently recognise LED five metres from the lens underwater,” Stilgoe says. However, he acknowledges that issues around calibrating and housing the cameras need to be resolved.
Centroid’s interest in exploring mocap technology doesn’t end there. “Motion capture is a toolbox and is great for analysis,” Stilgoe says, turning to the topic of Centroid’s nascent work with the worlds of higher education and research. It’s a subject far away from feature film production but one which, he explains, connects back to the mainstream, commercial work in the longer term. “We’re set up at Falmouth University, and the idea is that animation and performance can be researched,” he says. “We’re throwing weird ideas at PhD students.” The outcomes from this often more education-orientated work can be routed back into the production work that the studio is commissioned to undertake.
Recognising the value of the connections to be made between higher education and industry, Stilgoe explains that the relationship gives Centroid an opportunity to offer work placements to students, so that graduates entering the workplace are “trained up and match-fit”. Recently, The National Film and Television School brought the studio on board to deliver a mocap module, and some months ago Stilgoe ran a successful workshop in mocap production at The Lighthouse in Brighton.
As such, he’s in a good position to know what qualities might be important in an aspiring mocap creative. “An interest in photography and art is very useful,” says Stilgoe – because mocap is a camera-based operation. He adds that he values people who want to ask why software does things, and says that students with an interest in motion capture work can also benefit from some sense of character animation and a fairly broad knowledge of film.
Legendary Bollywood actor Rajinikanth at the Centroid motion capture studio on the Pinewood Studios lot
Apart from the vividly realised creatures inhabiting Mars in John Carter, and its work on the forthcoming World War Z, Centroid has also recently completed work on what it’s hoped will be a pioneering Indian film, providing the mocap work for Kochadaiyaan: The Legend. Telling the story of a clash between the forces of good and evil, the film combines dialogue, song-and-dance numbers and action, and showcases the Indian movie star Rajinikanth as the film’s archetypal warrior hero. Significantly, it’s the first time mocap has been used in Indian cinema.
“We’re doing all the image capture and Image Metrics are working on the facial animation,“ Stilgoe says, explaining that production for the film didn’t work from a script. Centroid’s founder was pleased to be involved in something that’s based in Asia. “[It was] one of the most laid-back shoots I’ve worked on,” he observes with a wry smile, describing it as less intense than a UK production.
Speaking of the very character-driven performances that have been mocapped for the film, Stilgoe cites the expressive work of the actors as being key to the success of the project. “So much of the dancing is done with the eyes,” he says.
Looking to the future, Stilgoe talks about the direction he’d like to see Centroid go in as the mocap industry becomes more prominent. “Having started as a family business, we like to have an open relationship to the outside world,” he says. “The motion capture world is becoming more accessible and we want to spread the magic.”
on Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 at 11:29 am under Features.
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Tags: films, mocap, MotionBuilder, VFX, visual effects