“Computer graphics enabled me to draw in ways that I never thought possible,” Brandt wrote in his Adelphi Honors College thesis.

by Bonnie Eissner

As a student in Adelphi’s Honors College, Zachary Brandt ’14 decided to major in computer science after dabbling in a few other areas. A love of computers made the choice a sensible one. Yet, it was only when he took a class in video game design that he honed in on his true passion. “Computer graphics enabled me to draw in ways that I never thought possible,” Brandt wrote in his Adelphi Honors College thesis.

Brandt’s curiosity about three-dimensional graphic design and motion capture animation took him on an unusual journey during his senior year when, as part of his Honors College thesis, he created a short motion capture animation, and he accomplished it using just his Xbox Kinect, a homemade PC and open source software.

If you’ve seen movies such as Avatar or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’re familiar with Hollywood-style motion capture. For millions of dollars, Hollywood studios suit up actors in spandex suits infused with scores of infrared sensors. As the actors are filmed, the infrared sensors track their movements, which are then translated into animated characters—think Gollum in Lord of the Rings or the Na’vi creatures in Avatar.

When you’re playing a game on a Kinect, a webcam is taking an image of you and two infrared cameras on either side of it are tracking your movements. These images are combined to create an avatar of you. Your avatar is then shown on the Xbox in the activity or game you’re engaged in—whether it’s football, yoga or bowling.

By attaching the Kinect to a computer and integrating some programming, you can create and manipulate your avatar as part of your own animated game or scene. In essence, it’s low-budget, but high-quality motion capture animation. To create his 10-second computer animation, Brandt taught himself Blender, an open source 3D animation software. He spent hundreds of hours on the animation, and found welcome inspiration and feedback from his Adelphi professors.

Lee Stemkoski, Ph.D., an associate professor of mathematics and computer science, who introduced Brandt to Blender during a game design class, offered guidance throughout the process. Brandt also appreciated the support of his thesis adviser, Terrence Ross, an associate professor of communications who has extensive experience making videos, and he found Gregory Mercurio, the Honors College academic adviser, “a huge help because he has a background in theatre and specifically set design.” Brandt described working on the project in the Honors College lounge in Earle Hall, adjacent to Mercurio’s office: “I would go in and show him something, and for one he’s incredibly interested and incredibly motivating and encouraging, and then he might say, ‘What if you tried adding a soft blue sidelight?’… It really helped bring out the lighting and the set design aspect of my animation.”

After all of the work and learning, Brandt said, “The coolest part is having a finished product that I can sit down and watch.” He added, “Anyone can do it if they have a passion and if they’re interested in it.”

This piece appeared in AU VU, Fall 2014 issue.

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