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Exclusive Q&A: A Conversation With Director/Animator Ian Chisholm
The Director of Machinama Cult Classic Clear Skies Talks About How He Made It and the Role iPi Soft's Markerless Mocap System

What began six years ago as simply a "creative outlet" for filmmaker/animator Ian Chisholm, Clear Skies III, the third film in his machinima series about the space adventures of the crew aboard the battleship Clear Skies, has steadily built a huge online audience thanks to its memorable storyline and characters, and innovative use of the iPi Soft's Desktop Motion Capture system, which played an integral role in bringing Chisholm's vision to life. 

Ian took time out from his busy day to discuss Clear Skies, how it came to be and where it's going in the third sequel.


Q. How did the Clear Skies series begin exactly?

A. I started the Clear Skies series about six years ago. I'd just begun doing some basic video work when I discovered I could use blue screening to composite video footage together. I'd always wanted to tell a full story, and by using the Eve Online graphics engine for exterior space and ship shots, and the Half Life 2 engine for interior sets and characters, I could finally achieve that.  It took over two years to learn everything in the Half Life 2 development kit, and to write my first script, build the sets, shoot, and create the film itself.  While the first Clear Skies film, which came out in 2008, looks pretty rough now, then it was a monster achievement for me.

Q. What about the latest installment Clear Skies III?

A. Clear Skies III is the culmination of what I learned producing the previous two films, from the writing to the acting to the camera work and everything in between. Practically every line of dialogue and every movement was motion captured using iPi Soft Markerless Motion Capture technology. Not only was this fun, but it also raised the bar on the performances I could deliver using the Half Life 2 characters. No longer was I limited to the built-in gestures that come with the game -- I could add more personality and dimension to the characters.

Most of the built-in gestures in Half Life 2 are static with little movement in the characters apart from the arms.  With iPi Soft's system I was able to not only incorporate the whole body motion, but also walk around in a small area and interact with items positioned on set. It elevates the immersion quotient for viewers.

Q. What role did iPi Soft's markerless motion capture technology play in the production?

Digital media journalist and actor Ricky Grove (who also voiced one of the characters in Clear Skies III) introduced me to iPi Soft CEO/Chief Technology Architect Michael Nikonov after I finished Clear Skies II. It turned out Michael was a fan and offered a free license. It was the impetus I was looking for -- something to push me to making the third film and leap further creatively than I ever had before. Using iPi Soft's technology I could create action sequences and dramatic moments -- gunfights, fistfights, character interaction -- that wouldn't have been remotely possible without it.

Also, I had to travel across Norwich [about 150 miles Northeast of London] to a studio that was large enough to set up the cameras and perform in, and that meant about 40 minutes of travel time, plus setup and takedown time as well. With iPi Soft we could perform the setup and takedown in minutes. If the mocap rig had been complex it would have limited the amount of work we could have done each day. The calibration process was quick, enabling me to preview the results within an hour. The amount of work I had to do was phenomenal, so speed and simplicity were vital.

Q. Where does Clear Skies fit in next to the whole machinima genre?

A. I think Clear Skies III will be mind-blowing for fans of machinima, who are used to seeing a lot of default in-game gestures being repeated over and over again. Getting more organic onscreen acting added a level of dimension not usually obtainable (with limited production budgets???) Markerless motion capture technology levels the playing field for filmmakers -- the quality of the images, coupled with the cost and ease of use represents a paradigm shift for film and animation workflows.

Here's a link to a making of video Ian put together:

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