By Anna Varela
In his role as a professor of practice at the Creative Media Industries Institute, James Martin teaches Georgia State University students how to use the latest hardware and software to create 3-D, real-time animation.
His technical skills will be displayed in the science fiction thriller “Replicas,” starring Keanu Reeves and Thomas Middleditch and premiering in theaters Jan. 11. The film tells the story of a neuroscientist (Reeves) who loses his family in a car crash and desperately tries to bring them back to life by transferring their “consciousness” to implantable hard drives and cloning their bodies.
Martin, the motion capture lead for “Replicas,” discussed the project and shared his thoughts about emerging technologies that are fast becoming mainstream.
Q. First, could you explain motion capture?
A. Motion capture is the act of capturing or recording movement of the human body or face. We focus on individual portions whether that is full body, facial or even hand movement. When we’re dealing with accuracy for things like expression, gait, dynamic movement or stunt performance we have to pay really close attention to all of the aspects of motion capture to really personify a full human performance. And it’s a lot of fun.
When most people think of motion capture, they think of little ping pong ball markers and spandex suits. That is one type of motion capture called optical motion capture which uses infrared cameras. It’s a very precise method.
An emerging technology that has changed the way that people have approached motion capture in the last ten years is called inertia-based motion capture. This does not require cameras or brick-and-mortar space. Literally you can put that intertia-based suit on anybody anywhere there is a wifi signal. That allows you to be completely untethered from a work station and be completely free to move about so the artist is basically free to just perform. We teach both at Georgia State.
Q. Why is this technology useful?
A. You can do things that would otherwise put stunt performers at physical risk.
In videogames, or in a movie, you might have a large fight sequence. You might have hundreds of thousands of characters. It’s a large task for a technical artist to animate that amount of characters effectively. Sometimes, other solutions like machine learning or artificial intelligence are utilized to take control of that motion capture.
Q. How common is this in films now?
A. Very. For example, “Black Panther” and “Avengers” utilize the same Xsens suits that we have down in the main studio at the Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII).
Q. How did you get involved with the movie “Replicas?”
A. I had worked closely with producer Jimmy Dodson on a previous project. Jimmy knew that there would be a large pre-viz element to this film and also a motion capture element. Pre-viz, which is short for pre-visualization, is like high-tech storyboarding.
He saw the potential in the toolset. If you really want to make executive producers happy, tell them how they can save time and money.
With this technology, the director can be collaborative with the artist in real time, and I’m capturing this data in real time.
Shots started being developed early on, in this pre-production phase, that literally were giving us movement shot selection, character motion, set design and layout. So a lot of this is pre-production methodology being demystified.
With pre-viz, we can tell others on the creative team what lens we’re using and what film back (dimensions) we’re using. We’re able to match that virtual composition with the actual physical camera. That not only makes the director very happy and able to do shot selection, but it makes the director of photography very happy because we’re actually giving him what’s called tech viz, the specifications needed to reproduce the shot.
Q. So with this technology, you can test a bunch of different angles, a bunch of different ways to shoot a scene, without having to physically shoot the scenes as many times?
A. Correct. You’re clarifying the production roadmap. And you’re doing that in a very efficient and technically effective way.
This is used very heavily in stunt coordination and for more expensive shots.
So, for example, for the car accident scene in which Keanu’s family was killed, we created a stunt Bible, basically a very in-depth document breaking it down shot for shot, move for move and sequence for sequence. That is a major, cost-effective time-saver because for this kind of stunt, you’re talking about $40,000-$50,000 per hour the day of.
Q. After making the “Matrix” movies, was Keanu Reeves an old pro with these techniques?
A. Absolutely. Even further back. When we were asking him to do the motion library, where we recorded him making different motions while wearing the motion capture suit, he said ‘You know, I already did all this for Johnny Mnemonic (a 1995 film).’ He remembered being asked to do those sort of early virtual reality motions.
Q. So, is there a special skillset that an actor needs for motion capture?
A. The actor doesn’t have to have any sort of prior knowledge. They literally can come in with nothing but their native performance. The only difference is probably the technical ask for calibration. It’s usually something that requires just a pose, or an expression. It’s usually an easy and fun process for them. And once they’re calibrated, they just have to be themselves.
Q. You have several props from the movie in your office. Students must think that’s cool.
A. At CMII, we’re introducing emerging technologies in a fun and retainable way. We have to gain the interest of students and also retain their interest so they’ll actually have the ability to develop their skillsets, develop their portfolios and become industry-effective from Day 1 on studio or on set.
It’s nice to be able to come in and show things like props, wardrobe, and students have a real-world example when they walk in my office. Yeah, it looks like a bunch of toys at first but, oh, wait, these are actual production materials.
Also, you’ll see a few of my shots in “Replicas” made it all the way through the final edit and into theatres. That’s showing that these methods exist from the front to back of the production. That really helps me as a professor show students how the methods that we teach here are utilized through the entire production process on a film.