As technology continues to advance in the film industry, 70% of all new films created use the tools of motion capture. And this number will keep growing because it is an incredibly efficient way to make films, from safer stunts to re-creating locations virtually. Cal State San Bernardino has recognized the potential in motion capture and has added it to the toolkit and skills training it can provide its theatre students.

“You can look at motion capture through a multi-disciplinary lens,” says CSUSB assistant professor of acting and directing Kristi Papailler. “It can be a prescriptive, kinesiology tool to examine, for example, how your body is moving as you swing a golf club. It can also be a performance-based tool, as in, how you can dramatize a poem.”

Enter CSUSB’s xReal Lab, led by Mihaela Popescu. James Trotter serves as assistant director, aided by programmer Bobby Laudeman and developer Yutong Liu. In the 2021-22 academic year, Papailler became a faculty fellow in the lab and began to think about how motion capture might be used with the university’s theatre students.

With support from the lab and the CSU Entertainment Alliance, in the fall of 2021, Papailler designed a class around a final project: student teams would create dramatizations from among the six poems read at U.S. presidential inaugurations over the years and turn them into motion capture films. The films could then be shared with K-12 classrooms for student viewing. As of the writing of this article, 2.5 of the six poems are in post-production and should be available for viewing by next year.

Once all six poems are eventually shot, put through post-production and then released, the result will be a narrative of our nation’s history provided by the poems themselves. “These six poems will chart the path of the nation from 1961 to 2021,” she states. “Once we line them up, they will tell a very distinct story.”

The students selected which poems to dramatize, chose avatars for themselves and spent four days in the basement of the John M. Pfau Library on the San Bernardino campus, taking part in a full-fledged motion capture shoot. The xReal Lab again assisted by securing funding to bring Mobile Mocap to campus to set up this temporary motion capture volume/film studio.

Thanks to two generous CSUSB Vital and Expanded Technology Initiative grants, a basement room in the Pfau Library has now become CSUSB’s own permanent lab, not only for motion capture, but also, hopefully soon, performance capture (more on the latter in a moment). This encompasses an optical system from Qualysis, comprised of infrared cameras surrounding the space, and markers that are applied to the human body or motion capture suits. These tools are portable and can be moved to the Palm Desert Campus for use by students there.

It also includes an inertial system. This consists of special suits (in CSUSB’s case, made by Rokoko) that wirelessly transmit movement data to an animation and analysis system. These systems became very popular and developed exponentially during quarantine because they allow capture of remote performance.

It is important for students to learn how to use all the different tools available for motion capture. With inertial capture, Papailler underscored that “the cameras don’t capture the movement in the suits. Instead, it is the optical systems which collect data by recording the movement of reflective markers on the suits or on the performer’s body.”

The initial Inaugural Poems project has led to a new motion capture class, which launched in the spring of 2023, using both the optical and inertial systems. The next intended phase will progress to a new performance capture class, which will include the detailed and finite movements of the face and fingers. She is pursuing funding to purchase the necessary additional equipment. Performance capture also records one of an actor’s key resources: their voice.

Papailler explains why CSUSB theatre students are so excited about these new tools. “Motion and performance capture allow the actor to explore and engage in movement and expression in a way that other mediums do not. Both also call upon the actor to use their body in a level of expressive excellence that other mediums of performance allow them to do.” She adds, “It’s your body that will create these characters. And this technology aids in developing truthfulness and precision in movement.”

Performance capture also answers the question: how do we incorporate the importance of voice into this new technological world? Motion capture cannot record the fingers, toes, voice or face. Performance capture does all these things along with teaching students how to do voice-over work. “This introduces additional skills like, what all is involved in vocal characterization? How do you create a clean recording?” she explains.

The number of sensors involved to fully record the movement of hands, for example, ranges from a basic level of 15 up to 20 on a single hand. Other systems involve a glove. Papailler clarifies that this is incredibly detailed, intensive and sensitive work.

She describes herself as a movement-based performer. “I always wanted to do stunt work,” she confesses. Papailler finds the new technology an asset in pushing forward answers to questions like, How do you develop a performer’s imagination and control to work within the volume of the space in which motion capture is made? What are the physics of that movement? She provides a practical example: “How do you engage the body to make it look like you’re lifting a car rather than what you are actually lifting, a mat?”

With a BA in humanities with interdisciplinary studies in English literature and theatre, plus a minor in African American theatre, and then an MFA in performance and a graduate certificate in African American theatre, Papailler has also practiced Tai Chi and Qui Gong for 15 years. She has additionally trained with Siti Company of New York in Suzuki and ViewPoints; LaMama Umbria, Italy in directing; and Stella Adler’s The Black Arts Institute in Brooklyn. For her, all this training explores the question, what can movement say?

Papailler was drawn to CSUSB by “the strength of theatre arts colleagues and their reputation, work and scholarship. And I think the placement of the university as an R2 that prioritizes both teaching and scholarship.” Her students have been her greatest discovery here with their “tenacity, creativity and diligence,” as she describes them.

“We can become leaders in motion capture training at CSUSB,” she emphasizes. “One of the great potentials that I see with this program is that our students who come through this training will be uniquely placed to have an impact on an industry that is not going to do anything but grow.” But that is not all. “I see them approach this work with a sense of ethics – without appropriation and without creating negative stereotypes.”

The world of motion and performance capture is no longer limited to film and television, however. She provides examples of how Actors Theatre Louisville and Oregon Shakespeare Festival incorporate motion capture and other augmented reality into theatrical performances. A recent “A Christmas Carol” used only one live actor on stage, with all the ghosts live-streamed from the rehearsal hall and projected onto the stage. This raises even more artistic questions such as: How does the motion capture actor interact with the audience if they are not physically there in the theater?

One thing is certain. CSUSB’s motion and future performance capture students will be exploring these questions in exciting ways as they push artistic and technological boundaries, growing their performance skills while using the very latest tools available. And Papailler will be investigating and exploring right alongside them.