Ballet and Motion Capture

I first learned about motion capture (mocap) in college while watching the Barbie Nutcracker. The animators put a professional ballerina in a mocap suit and recorded her performing the choreography. I had been dancing since I was a very young child, and was at the time dancing with a civic company, and had watched many an animator struggle to show ballet correctly. This being the early days of mocap, the animation and technology weren’t quite there yet, but it was something to watch an animated ballerina actually doing recognizable ballet steps. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to try doing mocap myself.

Really pay attention to Barbie’s bourrées. While not perfect, they’re not that far off.

A couple of months ago, Extra Play offered a playthrough of a dance-based game called Bound. A dance-based game? I had to watch. It became clear very quickly that the game animators had put a trained dancer in a mocap suit and had her perform various choreographies that they then wove together as the player character moves through the world. It’s beautiful in a jarring world.

But twenty years after that Barbie movie, Bound‘s dancing protagonist had a very obvious problem – she couldn’t bourrée correctly. Across six hours of game play, I counted at least five different bourrée animations (one is shown in the video above), four of which would have made any trained ballerina cringe. They did finally get it right late in the game, but I sat there wondering how with advances in animation and technology this protagonist struggled with a simple move that an animated character had accomplished reasonably well two decades earlier. Was the mocap technology just not able to sort out the dancer’s movements? Was it a shortcoming of the animation program? What happened?

Regardless, it’s been fun watching how the presentation of dance has changed across animation over the years.


PAX Reflections: On Being a Shy Rhythm Games Enthusiast

Recently, I’ve given a lot of thought to the kinds of games I’m drawn toward as a gamer. It didn’t take long to realize I really enjoy puzzle games, racing games, and rhythm games. I also enjoy a good adventure game, but the adventure games I enjoy tend to replace grinding with puzzles. This really came home for me at PAX because the games I was most drawn toward trying out were the rhythm games.

The problem with rhythm games is that they can easily be set up as performance situations. And my stage performance days are far, far behind me. And shyness and stage fright both settled in when I was a teenager. As an adult, I was much happier if I could hide buried somewhere in a corps de ballet…which is how I kept ending up doing demi-soloist and character work.

But the FragDolls (very friendly bunch of girls I’d hoped to meet) were showing off Just Dance 2, and my inner dancer couldn’t resist. I volunteered to go up on the stage, struggled to decode some of the symbols telling us what to do, and ended up winning my little round. Trying out Dance Central on the Kinect was far less stressful. It was just a kiosk with the people in line…and Dustin with his camera. I bravely tried a dance I’d seen an earlier person do on medium, and nearly aced it. It was a lot of fun.

The difference between the two, if you’re interested, is that Just Dance 2 is on the Wii, so it uses the Wiimote to track your arm movements (thankfully, because I couldn’t get the feet right in one section), while Dance Central is on the Kinect, which has no controller and tracks your entire movement. You read that right: the Kinect has no controller. You gesture to navigate the menus and to play the game. You also have to move in a small space, because if you step out of it, the game assumes you’ve left and pauses. Both are a pretty decent workout, though.

Before PAX, I’d made it my mission to defeat the Endless Setlist on Rock Band 2 (which I did), and my roommate got it into his head that he was going to get me up on the big Rock Band stage at PAX (he failed). We had passed a Rock Band 3 stage in the Expo Hall, though, and so Saturday morning when nearly no one was around, I agreed to give it a go. We had a nearly full band (six people), and the other vocalist was really nice. The guys running the stage told us that I had the lead mic and she had the harmonies mic, and then didn’t tell us what lines to follow. We had to sort that out ourselves…standing back to back. But the crowd started growing, and my voice started shrinking. One of the guys working had to jump in and encourage me to sing louder in his own cool way. So I was fine…right up until a local news camera appeared right on the other side of my monitor. And my voice faded again, and the guy saved me again. In the middle of all this, the woman at the next booth over had noticed the vocalists were both women and got on the PA to call people over. And there was nowhere to hide.

At the end of the song, I admitted to the guy who’d been encouraging me that I do suffer from stage fright, and that was terrifying for me. So he drummed up some crowd sympathy for me, because I’d actually done fairly well despite wishing for over half the song I hadn’t had that brief moment of courage stupidity and he gave me a little keychain for hanging in there. The other vocalist and I chatted afterwards, and she was also very encouraging. But we were both concerned because we’d been handed expert parts without any say in the matter.

I had the opportunity to talk to someone at the Harmonix booth later on, and he admitted that’s a feature of the full band mode. (It’s not a “feature” if it puts you on a level you aren’t comfortable with. Just sayin’…) He also told me that RB3 will save your level so you don’t have to mess with it every single song. But I do change my level based on the song. I don’t sight read on Expert if I don’t have to. I told him that. He sputtered for a moment, and then said, “Wow. You actually have some technique.” And we chatted a bit longer before I went to find my roommate again (and to allow him to pick his jaw back up off the floor. I had no idea it was such a big deal. I thought it was just my own shaky self-confidence at play.)


It would be cool to have a motion-capture suit like the ones they use to make the Barbie ballet movies for every day choreography, because it’s insane how much you lose when you’re exploring and experimenting with music. You can’t break flow to write something down, and you often don’t have someone to capture any stream of consciousness you might feel compelled to emit.

It would be interesting.

What Drives You Through the Day

The latest blogging challenge has us thinking about hobby blogging.

Cool! Great! I get to annoy everyone by talking ad nauseum about something I love!

Except I already do that…heh.

There’s so much to talk about.

One of my hobbies is crafting. I haven’t been able to indulge in it as much lately, and I’ve focused mostly on jewelry design when I get the opportunity to create handcrafts. This might be because nice people buy my work. I also happen to do other crafts. I do needlepoint when I have both the time and patience to work on a piece. I love to quill! It’s great for stretching your creativity, and creating tiles to form larger pictures really speaks to the math geek in me! I have even been known to enjoy making both candy and candles. It really just depends on my mood and available time.

Another of my hobbies is reading. This is a particularly dangerous habit of mine, and quite possibly my oldest habit. Through reading, I’ve ended up a lot of funny places. I write because I read. I am working on a graphic novel script because I read. I’ve dabbled in web and graphic design because I read. I even blog because I read. I have this habit of reading something, and then either researching it to death, or trying to figure out how to go try it out or oberve it for myself. It’s a lot of fun (and the secret of my seemingly vast store of random, useless trivia.)

Then there’s my dancing hobby. I always set up my room so there is space to dance. I spent fourteen years studying ballet, and would go back if it weren’t for my insane work schedule and a particularly bad ankle injury that never got the chance to heal properly. I think I’ve nearly always danced, even when I wasn’t in a studio studying. I dance when I’m hyper and need to work off some energy. I dance when I need to clear my mind so I can get to work. I dance when I’m so angry I can’t see straight because it calms me down and helps me focus on something other than what made me angry. I choreograph. I put on music and just play around. If there’s music, you can bet I’m interacting with it in some way. I think Sensei and some of my classmates are actually anxious to see me get to a higher level so I can start woking through katas and forms. I think there’s some hope that my natural grace and poise will turn them into dances.

As much as I’d love to tell you otherwise, animation is really a hobby of mine, too. It’s one that fuels my writing and reading hobbies. It also fuels my love for research and analysis. I’ve always loved watching cartoons. I’ve chased voice actors since I was eight. I am totally envious of the people who have the talent to create even a twenty-two minute cartoon. I’m doing well to create animated avatars! And full-length animated features? Don’t get me started! I got to see one scene of Titan A.E. before it was finished, and I thought that was the coolest thing in the whole entire world!

Okay, I think that’s pretty much what a standard day looks like for me, since I don’t count teaching as a hobby. It’s a passion, a lifestyle, but never a hobby.

A Neat Experiment in Musical Movement

I’ve been fascinated by creative blendings of movement and music for a very long time (probably most of my life). As a teenager, I enjoyed exploring incorporating diving and swimming into “dances” that didn’t realy heavily on synchronized swimming. A few years ago, I was working on incorporating unwieldy props. That was actually fun.

Friday morning, I was channel surfing, trying to find something to distract me from my to-do list, and found this incredible music video ! The music didn’t terribly impress me, but the use of the treadmills to create a visually engaging “dance” was just impressive! I had little choice but to hunt down the video online, just so I could watch it again.

Choreography truly does make the dance, and being unafraid to explore within the dance space just makes it that much more entrancing.

Show Us What We Want to See

One of my favorite things about living in Seattle is the cultural station. When I first moved here nearly two years ago, the station ran PBS programming during the day and the cultural arts programming in the evenings. Now it’s a twenty-four hour cultural arts station. I love to turn it on and let it serve as background noise. The programming really is excellent…

…most of the time. Their ballet selections tend to come from the eighties or earlier, and as such have horrid filming. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat down to enjoy a piece, only to have to deal with a camera trained on the dancer’s face.

Let me explain from my years of dancing that facial expressions, while an integral part of any role, are not what a dancer spends years and years perfecting. I can forgive a close-up on a gorgeous port de bras where the dancer is otherwise still, but I cannot forgive being completely shut out from enjoying the dance itself by an inept cameraman. I’m a dancer. I have been most of my life. Even when no longer in classes, I’ve practiced on my own. When I sit down to watch a dance, I expect to see the dance!

Oddly enough, I feel similarly about figure skating and gymnastics. I don’t mind tightening a camera angle on an important bit, but I cannot stand not being allowed to see the piece at all! These people all worked very hard to become skilled at their craft, and they deserve to be appreciated for all that dedication. Not sharing the entire piece that they have spent so much time perfecting is downright disrespectful.

I wonder if there’s a way to convince cameramen and their respective directors of this.

The Actor-Turned-Writer Learns From Her Students

The problem with having no past is that you can’t just turn to someone and say, “Did I ever really act when I was dancing?”

Thanks to a number of artistic directors and choreographers, I know the answer to that question is, “Yes,” but I’d rather be able to turn to a buddy and ask.

This isn’t to revisit the old and tired road otherwise known as “I don’t have buddies”. It’s actually more of a meditation on me the actor-turned-writer.

All right, so I was more a dancer/character actor, but that had more to do with the fact that I’m shy (and therefore soft-spoken) and I really hate the sound of my own voice. It really didn’t hurt that I absolutely love to dance, too.

Because I’ve spent so much of my life in the performing arts, I suppose I take a lot of things for granted. I expect acting theory and stagecraft to be common knowledge. That’s what inspired me to write this, actually.

I had to read a passage to a student as part of a lesson on active learning, and the spontaneously selected passage was about the art of acting. I read through it twice, asking questions after each reading. The second time through, a question came up about the difference between acting for a camera and acting for the stage.

Having no particular background in either, the student decided that screen actors have to be more dramatic than stage actors. That is, that screen actors have to be more expressive in voice and movement.

I couldn’t contain my surprise. Of course, I all but grew up on a stage, too. I explained that screen actors appear closer while stage actors have to play to the back wall. Fortunately, he saw the logic in why stage actors have to be more expressive, or I might have cried.

Part of the passage also discussed the role of the actor in the performance. The actor has to take a role and bring it to life. They have to know who the character is, where he comes from, what motivates him. The actor really has to get inside the character’s head to make him believable.

I’ve said it before, but the writer is a lot like the actor. As a writer, I have to understand not just one character, but all of them. I have to be in everybody’s head. In many respects, it’s not much different than those ballets where I was almost always on the stage in various roles.

Long story short: I miss the performing arts. This isn’t a new revelation, but I really do miss it. Writing is a constant, but it’s really not a replacement for performing.

I want to audition for a community choir, but my work schedule is in the way. I don’t know how to resolve the problem.

I want to find an empty theater and play on the stage. Dance, sing, maybe rattle off a poem or two. Just explore without the pressure of an audience.

Did I ever reach beyond the proscenium?

Stage Fright

One would never guess it, but I actually suffer from stage fright. Any time I have to get up in front of a group of people for any reason, I panic. Over the years, I’ve become really skilled at hiding it, but the simple fact of the matter is I’m utterly terrified.

This is funny for a variety of reasons.

The first is that I am a teacher. Most of my teaching career has been spent in front of anywhere from three to over 100 people, talking about various topics. It kind of goes with the territory, and teaching is my passion. I just can’t be anything else. (A number of people will vouch for this.)

The second is that I’ve spent a lot of time in various performing arts. In fact, I’ve spent been a performing artist twice as long as I have been teaching. I’ve been everything from ensemble to soloist in different performing media, and I have monstrous stage fright. As an ensemble memeber, it wasn’t so bad. I was always either tall or average for my group, so I rarely had to be in front. I’ll never forget, though, being a character actor for Ballet Lubbock, and being informed that the first thing anyone would see on the stage would be me. It was the most terrifying thirty-two counts of my dancing career.

I hate being the center of attention. I really do. As a child, I used to seek out the spotlight. When I became older and earned a spot in it, it was the last thing I wanted. All those eyes on me. Really, it’s just a scary, scary feeling for me.

I’m much happier being a wallflower who escapes notice.