Applying Kinesiology to CG Humans | Spotlight on The Mill’s Jason O. Monroe

Jason O. Monroe is Deputy Head of 3D, based at The Mill's Los Angeles studio.
Thought April 6, 2020

Tell us about your role at The Mill?

As Deputy Head of 3D, I have three core priorities: to make sure that all the individual departments within CG have the resources they require, to facilitate effective communication, and to assure the delivery of high-quality content for our creative partners.


You had an interesting route into the industry, can you tell us about that?

My undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree was in the field of Kinesiology. I initially thought I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon and was in the process of applying and being accepted into medical school. At that stage I decided to pause before taking on eight more years of school and went to get some work in my field. I got a job with Health South as an athletic trainer and rehab therapist, at a clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. I did that for about three years. About a year into the role I decided not to continue the medical route and instead to go back to art school! This decision had a lot of people scratching their head as it was an absolute 180 from what I had been studying.


What is Kinesiology?

Kinesiology is the study of the human body and anatomy; specifically the mechanics of human movement. The degree includes a wide range of specialisms from physiology, anatomy and a lot of mechanical physics to learn about weight distributions and forces acting against one another. The human body is basically just a system of levers and ball joints, so how they work with one another all plays a part in how we move.


How does that inform the work you do in VFX?

When I started off in the video game industry, understanding how the body moves and what it looks like when it moves really helped me when it came to animating humans. I’ve been in the industry a while now and I was there during the advent of motion capture. When we first started using it, we’d get data back from these studios and have to clean it up from an elementary and raw place. Understanding what was correct and incorrect meant I could do that accurately. What your common sense tells you that the body should look like when it is walking or running can vary a lot from what the body actually looks like, there are so many nuances in the human body and so many things going on that you might not even pick up on. My kinesiology training has definitely helped me become a better animator and informed my approach to VFX work.

Talk us through the most memorable CG human project you’ve worked on?

I am incredibly proud of the work the team did on Kia ‘Feel Something Again’. The CG face, hair, lighting and movement forms one of the best CG humans I’ve ever worked on. In order to give Steven Tyler his youthful look, our artists reconstructed his face entirely in CGI. First, a scan was taken of his body to give the artists a base to work from. Then came the sculpting process, where the artists filled in muscle, fat and cartilage to essentially reverse the effects of time. They also matched the look of certain features such as his lips, eyebrows and cheekbones, drawing reference from older footage and photos of Steven from about 45 years ago. The visual effects team also captured Steven’s acting on set, drawing from his bodily response and mimicking his facial emotion for the CGI version of him.


Fun fact: If you look closely toward the beginning of the commercial, you’ll notice a quick shot of a black and white photo of Steven. This actual archive photo from the ‘70s was used as a crucial reference – not only for the visual effects artists, but for the audience to take note before the big reveal.

What is the key to creating realistic human movement?

I honestly believe the pinnacle of our profession, of visual effects, is creating a realistic human! It’s the hardest thing to do. Complexity aside, the reason it is so hard is because all of us, even babies, are experts at recognising human movement and facial features. In my opinion 90% of communication is non verbal/body language. The cues that we all pick up on when we look at somebody, who may not even be speaking, all inform us. Because of that, every single person who looks at our artwork and our content, are already experts in what looks right or wrong. They may not be able to tell you why it looks wrong but they will know something is off. That’s why it’s so hard – everyone is a pro at what looks realistic! So, in order to achieve that as an animator you have to start with studying the human body. You have to study how muscles attach to the skeletal structure, how it pulls on the bones, the way muscle dynamically retracts to make a joint move. That’s the road map right there! If you are trying to make a digital double of someone and you’re not studying all the movements of a human body then you’re painting in the dark.


Talk us through the benefits of creating a human / character in full-CG?

It’s so much easier for us to push the laws of reality. If you wanted someone to run at a super human speed… or put together an action sequence where the hero has to do a long choreographed fight scene. An actor on set, even if in peak condition, is going to get tired with all the takes and cuts. Whereas in full-CG we could choreograph a whole fight scene, splice in multiple camera angles, then adjust and change it multiple times without any retakes.


How does advancing technology enhance what you can do when it comes to creating true to life CG humans?

Motion Capture technology has by far advanced in terms of human movement. Initially it only captured ‘gross movements’ of running, jumping, rolling, throwing. More recently facial motion capture and eye tracking have even come into play which is another big leap forward. As the technology and the hardware get more powerful, the more data we are able to collect and the more realistic the result. Lots of studios that create CG software have R&D engineers who push the accuracy of the lighting tools, hair solutions, shaders for realistic skin etc. Combine the lighting, hair and skin together with realistic movement and it levels everything up.