Monday, 27 July 2015

Performance Capture
at Manchester Art Gallery

Performance Capture, by digital artist Ed Atkins, was an exhibition coinciding with the Manchester International Festival 2015 demonstrating the performance aspect and rendering process of the computer-generated imagery we see in many Hollywood blockbusters today. As well as in films, it is also frequently used in the development of video games, robotics, sports, medical applications and in the military.

The exhibition offered a unique opportunity to go behind the scenes of the production of a computer-generated moving image work laid out across three rooms pertaining to the production process; from the early stages of capturing the actor, to the rendering 'farm', to the finalised product.

Neytiri from Avatar, Gollum of both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, and Dobby from the Harry Potter series are the most popular examples that come to mind when motion capture (or mo-cap) is mentioned to me. The complex procedure focuses around tracking the facial expressions and body movements of an actor, through the use of a specially-equipped suit, which feeds information to a computer that is then matched to a 3D avatar model to be edited and used in a variety of avenues such as those mentioned above.

The Art Galleries and Museums group, from Henshaws, went to visit the exhibition for an audio described talk and tour of what is possibly the most elaborate show we've had to date! Audio description was provided by the award-winning Anne Hornsby, who was recently the recipient of the International Achievement Award 2015, for her in audio description over the past 27 years, and she was joined by Curator Natasha Howes. As a big fan of fantasy and sci-fi movies, I was particularly excited by this month's visit to Manchester Art Gallery to learn more behind the ever-evolving art of motion capture!

The exhibition began in an open space studio comprised of various equipment including rigging, lighting and a stage; with television screens and early-concept illustrations adorning the walls, giving an interesting insight into the detailed planning work that takes place long before a motion capture session even hits the studio. Computer screens to the centre of the room presented the auto-cued script to the actor as well as a tracking screen showing the performer moving on the 3D model avatar in real-time as captured by their suit.

The group and I were present as a dancer suited up to take part in the tracking, and after she was fitted we then viewed her performance twice. The first performance focused entirely on her interpretation of Atkins' script and how she enunciated, even over-exaggerating, certain words and phrases. The second performance focused more on her highly emphasized movements. Different performances from various actors and dancers involved with the Manchester International Festival this year would make up the final rendered product.

After the dancer had finished, Ed Atkins joined us to read out a portion of his script and it was particularly interesting to hear how he told his verse as opposed to an actor or dancer reading from the auto-cue. His script was nonsensical, sometimes poetic, and represented the complex, confusing and often chaotic space in our minds. The interference of excessive information in everyday life was another big inspiration in his written piece for the exhibition.

The Rendering Farm was showcased in the second room, away from the studio space, and this was my favourite part of the exhibition - to have the opportunity to be right there and involved in the environment as the digital artists edited the content that was fed into the computer by the actor's performance. We were encouraged to speak with the digital artists and ask any questions. I really enjoyed being able to speak with quite a few of the animators - finding out about the software they use to track movement and create avatars, their previous experience in the field, and what interests them in animation.

The final portion of the exhibition was located in a dark curtained room, housing a large cinema screen, highlighting the finished work completed so far. Emblazoned on the monitor were the previous performances that had been edited within the Rendering Farm from the start of the exhibition. I was intrigued with the film hearing the various different performers read the script differently from one another, executing it individually with their use of body language matched with the 3D model, yet it flowing together seamlessly as it used the same avatar throughout. It was obvious that a lot of work had gone into the finished piece and that the performers themselves had had a lot of fun with the part of the script that was allocated to them.

As I mentioned, I am a big fan of the movies that tend to incorporate this capturing process so it was very special for me to be able to have that first-hand experience of seeing the medium in all of its wonderment from start to finish and having a sense of involvement. This was truly a notable exhibition and I wish Ed Atkins all the best with his future work.

As always I would like to say a big thank you to Mary Gifford, group leader of the Art Galleries and Museums group, for selecting yet another informative and engaging exhibition, to Anne Hornsby for her wonderful audio description and to my guide and volunteer driver, Mary Tantrum, for her continued support and companionship.