Student demo shows 'mocap' animation in action

by Allison Ruderman | 10/2/07 3:24am

As a Montgomery Fellow in residence, Merce Cunningham's responsibilities are to participate in or inspire activities and events related to his craft. At least nine different engagements are planned for "The Art of Merce: Dartmouth Celebrates an Iconoclast," along with the performance of Cunningham's dance company this weekend.

One event occurs today at 5:30 p.m. in Bentley Theater, as Digital Arts Professor Lorie Loeb and Presidential Scholar Rachel Forman '09 present a demonstration that merges Cunningham's choreography with digital animation through the use of motion-capture technology.

The idea materialized approximately a year ago, when a group of Dartmouth professionals met to discuss creative options for Cunningham's residency. Professor Loeb of the computer science department was at that meeting and recognized the opportunity for digital arts to become involved.

Loeb, who was also the faculty advisor to this year's first-place winners of Google's Build Your Campus in 3D Competition, decided to use the common denominator of motion to render a physical, dancing body in the digital domain.

Loeb approached Forman, a digital arts minor with this multidisciplinary project idea, and together they established "Motion Capture in Action." The setup involves building three 3-D renderings of one of Cunningham's own animal drawings, a blue-footed boobie, which are then synchronized with motion-capture technology (or "mocap") to mirror the motion of dancers.

Each of three dancers will be outfitted with nearly 60 marble-sized spheres attached by Velcro to a skin-tight bodysuit. Special lights capture the positions of the markers and subsequently of each joint. The data is transferred to the animated models of the three blue-footed boobies, which will move exactly in tune with the dancers.

Two of the dancers are instructors for the Dartmouth Dance Enemble: Jennifer Armstrong and Emily Cross. The third is Jonah Bokaer of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Bokaer specializes in "the creative potential of digital technologies in movement production," according to his blog.

"Jonah will be teaching Jennifer and Emily pieces from Merce Cunningham dances, as well as his own choreography special for this," Loeb said.

During the year following the conception of "Motion Capture in Action," Forman worked to convert Cunningham's 2-D drawing to a 3-D model using high-end modeling software called Maya. The modeling process involved manipulating thousands of control points on an animated sphere to any variety of positions or scales. Forman analogized the technique to shaping clay with hands, except with a computer and mouse.

"I love the product, but not the process," she said referring to the many long nights in Novack spent designing the animation.

The project serves to fulfill Forman's Presidential Scholarship, an academic program that pairs students with faculty to assist in research projects. Using her Presidential Scholarship stipend, Forman was recently able to travel to Los Angeles for an in-depth examination of motion-capture animation at the House of Moves. House of Moves provides services to a range of entertainment production companies, and its credits include movies like "Spiderman 2" and "Titanic."

At the studio, Forman trained in the motion-capture technology necessary to link her blue-footed boobies to human movement.

House of Moves' parent company VICON, the world's leading manufacturer of mocap systems, furnished half of the mocap equipment needed to present "Motion Capture in Action."

Through a National Science Foundation grant, the College purchased the remainder of the equipment. Loeb cowrote the grant proposal along with Computer Science Professors Haney Farid, Devin Balkcom and Fabio Pellacini.

The mocap demonstration exploits a unique quality of Cunningham's choreography. Considered by many to be the top avant-garde choreographer of the 20th century, Cunningham creates dances that are non-representative collections of movement, meaning they are sequenced and spatially oriented largely by chance. In this way, he eschews the convention of choreographing abstract themes, instead focusing on plain movement. Cunningham is also famous for using technology in dance.

Specifically, he is known to use tape playback as a memory aide and a tool to inform new choreography. In this context, "Motion Capture in Action" marries Cunningham's positive use of technology with the interests and ingenuity of Dartmouth academia.

"Motion Capture in Action" will take place in Bentley Theater at 5:30 p.m. today. The event is free.

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