Jeffrey Wisniewski's Battle of the Buddha: Is Motion Capture the Next New Thing in Video Art?

Wisniewski's battling Buddhas: Hollywood high tech with art world cred
Wisniewski's battling Buddhas: Hollywood high tech with art world cred
Jeffrey Wisniewski

Sculptor Jeffrey Wisniewski is known for dismantling an American colonial home and feeding it into a woodchipper, piece by piece, somewhat in the spirit of celebrated house-cutting artist Gordon Matta-Clark. He is also an art director for Steven Spielberg's new film The Adventures of Tintin and was assistant art director of Avatar.

Wisniewski's current work at Patrick Painter Inc blazes a pioneering path for the art world into motion capture-video, and blends the boundaries of what is art, what is video art, and what is commercial short-subject film. He enlisted Giant Studios, which worked on Avatar, to do the motion capture -- a process in which an actor's movements are digitally recorded and then converted into animation.

Battle of the Buddha shows a Shrek-like deity who morphs into two Buddhas who stretch and grimace Sumo-style, throw down their robes, comically deliver fierce kicks to the groin and Hulk-like spins in the air, then meld back again into one floating gummy-bearish divine being. The six-minute film took years, with support from prestigious Artpace and more than 40 collaborators.

Here's our Q&A with Wisniewski:

How did you come to do this work after 15 years as an artist in New York City?

My friend [Oscar-winning cinematographer] Janusz Kaminski told me there was work out here in film. I visited an old friend, Thom Merrick, the artist, in Wonder Valley, which borders Joshua Tree, and bought a few broken-down houses on 20 acres that I turned into a studio.

Janusz set up a meeting for me with Rick Carter, Spielberg's production designer. One day as I was driving down the 101, he called and asked if I wanted to go to Budapest. The next week I was in Hungary working on Munich. Rick knew I was a sculptor and asked if I could help out building weird models [for] a small experiment Jim Cameron was working on. It turned out to be Avatar and I had become an expert in motion capture.

Rick told me I had to work on Tintin, because he wanted to be sure there was someone visual on the set.

What was the process on Battle of the Buddha? How much is your hand literally on the artwork? Did you work primarily as a conceptual artist?

I worked with Matthew Drutt of Artpace in San Antonio for two years. I then presented the project to Matt Madden of Giant Studios. I worked with a modeler, Lennon Montejo. Then we did the capture day with stuntmen, the guys at Giant and Mauro Fiore, the [director of photography] of Avatar and a lifelong collaborator and childhood friend who did the virtual camera.

Is there any connection with your acclaimed house-put-through-a-wood-chipper?

Yes. It was a classic American icon, a stereotypical dream home. There was a ghostly quality to it, a romantic nostalgia. The Buddhas are very similar in that the content is very loaded but simple.

Is there a good Buddha and a bad Buddha?

No, I think that was a mistake in the press release, there is a gold and a crimson one. I always thought of it as a communist and capitalist.

Mo-cap is getting huge in movies -- there's a big push to get Andy Serkis considered for best actor in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Andy is great. He was Captain Haddock in Tintin. He went to school to be a painter. He deserves any award he gets.

How is your mo-cap different?

It's not different, it's the same.

Couldn't your artwork play in a major film festival as well as a gallery setting? How does the context change the work?

I have never entered it into a film festival. I would like to someday.

Do you think motion capture could become a viable process for video artists?

Yes, definitely. We use a technique called simulcam that can intermix with live action footage. The possibilities are endless. I think you will see a blend of art, film, and digital games -- the technologies are here.

At what point will prices make mo-cap a truly popular art form for individual artists?

I think it is already here. On the set of Tintin, Steven Spielberg joked with Peter Jackson that we should make motion capture kits and sell them at Walmart.

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