Crossing the Uncanny Valley
Neoscape is discovering new horizons through motion capture storytelling.
We’re about telling stories regardless of the medium that we use, whether it’s a still image or a film or an app or a brochure,” says Carlos Cristerna, RadLab Director for Neoscape. While motion capture has been a powerful storytelling tool for years, Neoscape is pioneering its use in new sectors.
Neoscape is a full-service marketing agency founded as an architectural visualization firm. The studio was created in 1995 and in the years since, has worked internationally with some of the biggest architects and real estate firms in the world. More recently, the business has also made a shift into visualizing more traditionally unusual projects.
Whether they are static 2D images or animations, the visualizations that Neoscape creates serve an important purpose – to bring scenes to life for communities and other stakeholders in development projects.
TAKING A CUE FROM THE ENTERTAINMENT WORLD
In more recent years, Neoscape has begun looking to Hollywood for techniques and tools that can elevate its craft to the next level, allowing it to incorporate layers of storytelling that help clients bring their projects to life.
“The architectural visualization and entertainment industry are kind of apart, even though it’s the same skill set and the same tools,” Carlos says. But across that divide Carlos saw a solution to a recurring problem for his sector: the use of human characters.
“People in architectural visualization films, they’re always in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, and they’re the wrong people. There’s a guy talking on a cell phone, and then there’s no cell phone,” says Carlos. “They walk like they broke their legs. It’s horrible.”
Green screen is one solution, but it comes with its own set of issues. “It has its place for different foreground elements, or if we have a main character that needs to fit a certain ethnicity or a specific look and feel. [But] that can be expensive and time consuming.”
Carlos and his colleagues had been considering a motion capture system as a way to redress some of these problems for a while, but the cost was a problem. While Neoscape is one of the largest studios in the architectural visualization field, it doesn’t have the budget that VFX houses in the entertainment industries do.
When Carlos and his team got the opportunity to do a day-long shoot on a Vicon stage in Mexico, however, they were sold. The price-performance ratio of the Vero, with its ability to perform in their compact Boston studio, convinced the studio to take the leap.
It’s paying off. “We’re trying to find the right balance of storytelling and just bring the quality of the work we do up a notch,” says Carlos. “It’s partly about narrowing the uncanny valley, so you send these subconscious messages to people that this is a real place.”
Neoscape recently put its Vicon setup to work on one of the largest mixed use developments on the Manhattan river side of NYC. The studio was hired to tell the story behind some of the project’s designs, including the creation of media to be projected inside the elevators that take users to its observation deck, the highest in the western hemisphere.
One of the telling details that Neoscape was able to include is an animation of the observation deck’s glass floor. “You have a shot of the family taking a selfie on the glass floor, and then you cut to the underside of the observation deck,” says Carlos.
In the past, he says, the people would have disappeared during the cut. “So there’s no continuity, right?” says Carlos. “It’s little breaks in continuity like this which will break a viewer’s suspension of disbelief.” Using the capture stage, however, his team were able to use tracking data to create animations of the family from multiple angles without having to start from scratch each time.
Another more unusual project is the animation that Neoscape created of an ongoing space mission for Draper Laboratories. The company is behind the navigation systems on a mission to extract material from an asteroid, and wanted a visualization of the project. To humanize the story, Carlos wanted to include a fully populated mission control back on Earth.
“Motion capture,” Carlos says, “allowed us to tell a much more complex story in a much less didactic way, in a more engaging way. There’s nuance to the movement of the people, and I can actually direct them. It allows you to have another layer of storytelling.”
Neoscape’s Vicon stage is now being used in over a dozen projects and Carlos hopes to expand that. “My hope is that it becomes so easy and so ingrained in our process, that it’s just a matter of fact that we’re going to be putting custom animated characters in every single piece,” he says.
Beyond differentiating Neoscape by avoiding off-the-shelf animations, Carlos hopes to get more creative in his use of the system. He wants, he says excitedly, “to start doing things like they’re doing in using the motion capture system to track the camera and do some live green screening, maybe use it with Unreal Engine and just use it in many other creative ways. Not just tracking humans but tracking objects moving and using them in different ways.”
In other words, if Carlos has his way then VFX practices in the entertainment and architectural spheres will be indistinguishable in the very near future.