A series of short interviews with people who are active in fields where collaborative and peer learning play an important role both in the distribution of knowledge and in the development of their skills.
For this series, we ask everyone the same questions so that we can find and highlight their common practices as well as their unique methods in each field.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Shawn Baichoo. I’m an actor, which encompasses a lot of things: voice work, theatre, film & television, but I specialize in motion-capture and stunt fighting & choreography.
Tell us about your field, what it’s about and what got you interested in spending the time to master the skills needed.
Motion-capture, or MoCap for short, is used extensively in video games to capture the movements of actors for cinematic cut-scenes as well as for in-game sequences. I think MoCap is best known in mainstream circles due to films such as Avatar, Planet of the Apes, and perhaps most famously, Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Performers wear special suits that are outfitted with markers, little balls whose position and movements are picked up by an array of infrared cameras. This data is fed into computers that then create animations based on the movements of the performers.
Ironically, MoCap is a field that did not even exist when I was doing my theatre studies, so there was no way for me to prepare for my future career through formal educational channels.
That being said, I’d estimate that about half of my suitability for MoCap is based on skills I picked up in formal education: voice-work, improv, movement, stage combat, dance, etc. The other half are personal pursuits I’ve always been passionate about, but never with a mind towards my career. My love of video games, martial arts, comic books, role-playing games, and sci-fi & fantasy really inform my choices as a MoCap actor and give me a huge leg up in the industry, as most video game projects are based heavily in those worlds.
So, if a mo-cap director says something like “I’m looking for the kind of performance like the witches in Left 4 Dead 2”, that’s shorthand that a non-gamer actor might not understand, but that as a fan I’m intimately familiar with.
For instance, in Watch Dogs 2, I play a character named Wrench, who has quickly become a breakout character and fan-favourite, due in part to the fact that he’s being played by an actor who genuinely loves these type of games, and thus has a keen insight into what fans are looking for.
In fact, the Watch Dogs 2 director had seen a fan-film featuring Marvel Comics’ Punisher character that I had produced and starred in, and based partly on that viewing, decided that I would be a good fit for the Wrench character. I obviously didn’t make that fan-film because I thought that it would be a “team-based learning experience” that would land me a job a couple of years later, but that’s what ended up happening.
What do you think about the idea of peer and collaborative learning in your field?
Because MoCap is a new field with a vast array of technical constraints, there’s not a lot of existing expertise in the field. So everyone is constantly “learning the ropes” and sharing skills openly. When I get to learn how to “Breach & Clear” with a SWAT team for a scene, I then take that knowledge forward into other scenes for other jobs, which then allows me to inform the choices of other actors with less experience, or even the directors on occasion. They might know what they want it to look like, but they might not have the specific knowledge to instruct the MoCap performers in order to achieve the desired end, given the technology at hand.
In some fields, knowledge is guarded somewhat jealously, for fear of giving away a competitive advantage. Skill-sharing is not as threatening to actors because acting is so subjective. I can acquire tips and skills from you, but I can’t acquire an “acting choice.” Since creative intangibles are so personal, they can’t be “stolen” or passed on like more empirical skills, for example acrobatics or swordplay.
Can you share a personal example of how that form of learning and collaboration has helped you along?
We had to shoot a scene for Assassin’s Creed where a character is in a river, and he grabs a passing log to keep from drowning, but he keeps sinking beneath the waves every few seconds. We didn’t have a pool or tank, obviously, so how could we possibly shoot this? He can’t stand up and mime it. If he lies down on the floor it won’t look right. It occurred to me that we could use the scaffolding we had nearby. I climbed up and hung off the top rung, so that my legs could hang freely above the floor. I then used my arms to let myself “sink” below the top bar and pull myself up again, while doing some “sputtering and flailing” acting, and the MoCap data simulated “floundering on a river log” very nicely. So now, going forward, it’s possible that the “Baichoo Scaffold Protocol” will be used whenever someone needs to act in a water immersion scene of that type.
This series is greatly inspired by the excellent The Setup.