How is working with motion capture like staging a play? As I’ve been working on my fellowship project in the Scholars’ Lab, I’ve also been directing a play for our local community theatre. Engaging in these projects simultaneously has led me to reflect on the ways that collecting motion data has much in common with the process of making theatre. Not only are both Digital Skriker and the play I’m directing collaborative ventures, but they contend with similar sets of limitations that must be accepted or overcome, responded to with both creativity and candor. It strikes me as useful to articulate some of the overlaps in these processes, imagining the way that working in the digital humanities can support artistic work, as well as scholarship.
After we scheduled our first official movement recording session, I acted as a dramaturg, providing my mover (the person’s whose movement we were capturing) with concepts, context, and images that might give her a sense of the characters that her movements would ultimately help illustrate. What kind of choreography might we use to capture the movement of fantastic characters such as a bogle or the Green Lady? To this end I assembled a sheet of images, ideas, and context, like I would have had I been serving as a dramaturg for a play. Though I was not going to strictly choreograph this movement, I thought it would be a wasted opportunity not to use the project as a chance to think about how the relationship between humans and nonhumans might be expressed through movement (and posthuman theory is currently one of my primary intellectual and artistic interests). As I knew I wanted to explore how my mover would interpret nonhuman movement, I intentionally left space for interpretation and variation.
There are no qualifications to be a mover—everyone gestures and moves as part of their everyday embodied experience (and in fact our different bodies and capacities condition the kinds of shapes we can make, adding depth and diversity a wide human archive of movement). In theory, anyone could serve as a mover for the purpose of motion capture. But as I was ideally going to engage in a creative, reciprocal process and offer adjustment and direction, I decided it would be helpful if I shared some movement vocabulary with my mover. I asked one of the friends with whom I practice yoga to allow us to capture her motion data; we have a shared language for bodily awareness, breath control, and embodied shapes. Choosing another mover—a football player, another graduate student, a classically trained dancer, a person on crutches or in a wheelchair—would have dramatically changed the range of motion we could capture, just as casting an actor in a play puts creative limits on the character that will emerge in performance.
I realized I approached our motion capture session the same way that I approach directing: I see my role as the editor of another artist’s choices. I told our mover about the characters and let her play around and then gave her feedback on how she might move or which movements she might repeat on subsequent takes. This is how I prefer to work because I think it shows the most respect for the creativity of one’s collaborators. When I served as my own mover, I’m sure my dancing would have benefited from the feedback of another director. This aspect of the process drove home the point that even capturing motion data to import into another artwork is a fundamental part of the artistic process itself.
Typically, costumes are constructed for the actor after they are cast in a role, but it’s worth meditating on the ways that the “costume” we wear for motion capture conditions the kinds of data we’re able to capture. We started by experimenting with UVA’s Animazoo suit, which I imagine could be the uniform for a futuristic motorcycle gang. It’s also skintight. While generously sized and featuring Velcro adjusters, it certainly would not be able to fit every mover. I find this to be a significant drawback to that technology’s ability to contribute to my creative process as it puts a strict limit on size and shape of bodies that I can use in my AR-enabled performances. The VR sensors we’ve been using recently are much more accessible in that way; however, without a range of sizes in Velcro bands to attach the sensors, I’m still limited to a narrower range of bodies than I’d like. A technology that does not truly open up representational possibilities in performance is not worth the effort, in my view.
Costumes also dramatically condition the kind of movement we can capture by restricting the body in certain ways. For example, if I’m using the VR sensors which require a headset to be plugged in, my ability to complete quick turns and jumps become a safety hazard. This too, is not unlike some theatre productions—even the most meticulously and generously constructed period costumes still affect actors’ abilities to move around in all the ways they are used to. This limitation can be turned into an opportunity for creativity and depth, by enabling actors to experience the bodily constraints their characters might have faced in their historical periods. Though not a period piece, the show I’m directing now requires a lot of athletic movement from the characters and we’ve chosen the sizing and inseams of the costumes based on what will accommodate free and comfortable movement for all of our actors. That’s all to say that I think the affect of “costuming” on movement is one of the strongest points of convergence between capturing movement data and staging a play.
Set and Audience
We’ve experimented with two “sets” for our motion capture, both taking up aboutthe same square footage on fluffy rugs in the RMC in Clemons library. The soft texture of the floor encourages us to jump by suggesting a soft landing. The high visibility of this site also affects the kind of movement we might be comfortable doing. My first mover felt more comfortable dancing with the VR headset on, which enabled us to locate her in a virtual space so she could feel as though she was moving around in an environment that would be appropriate for the characters she was portraying, while also ensuring she would be completely unaware of any students glancing at what we were doing. For her motion capture session, we also covered our station with dividers to provide more privacy. Audience, or perceived audience, conditions our movement. I’m not a shy mover, so when I was in the suit, I happily jumped, twirled, acted like Golem, and performed vinyasas. I did think, however, that perhaps it would not be a good idea to move in a way that could be interpreted as “inappropriate” for an academic space, even if that would have been the appropriate choice for the characters whose motion I was capturing.
Perhaps this is a no-brainer, but music affects movement—this was true in our motion capture sessions as it is on stage. I prepared a playlist for our first motion capture session that had songs of various genres and tempos in the hopes that it would support the mover in providing a variety of sequences. When I was in the suit, I moved in silence, which was admittedly kind of weird. As in theatre productions, sound can support the actors and reinforce the tone of the action. I’m interested in how adding sound in “post” will affect our perception of the movement sequence’s we’ve recorded—I suspect they will read differently, depending on the kind of sound we use to accompany them.
Capturing motion happens at close quarters and requires trust among all parties present. As the work is so focused on the body and on the body’s interaction with technology, movers often need the assistance of others in putting on and adjusting the equipment and attention is paid to their bodies and its movements. It’s worth acknowledging that this is a vulnerable part of the process that requires trust and explicit consent from all collaborators, just as it does when one is working with sensitive material in a play script. The foundation of fruitful artistic collaborations is trust, in all disciplines.
I still consider myself a Unity newbie, and so when I’ve been constructing scenes from the motion capture, I’m struck by just how limited I am, at least aesthetically. As I’m relying on standard free assets, I’m not yet able to precisely realize an artistic vision to imagine The Skriker in a way that I think is “finished” enough to warrant an audience. But maybe that’s okay, at least for now. Local, nonprofit theaters serve vital roles in forging community and allowing amateur creators an artistic home; their budgets and spaces often place limitations on the kinds of designs they can execute. But this does not mean that messy work does not serve a purpose or contribute to the life of the community. From my perspective, DH work and theatre-making share a core value: the knowledge created in the process is valuable and meaningful.