Arts charity uses Vicon motion capture to preserve the signature moves of a pioneering generation of UK B-boys long after their originators have stopped spinning.

These days, some of the popping and locking may be due to ageing joints, but thanks to arts charity Hip Hop Heritage, a pivotal moment in British urban dance has been motion-captured for posterity. The data, recorded by Vicon’s mobile capture unit, and shown in the recent ‘Afterlife’ exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, preserves the signature moves of pioneering 1980s UK breakdancers, if not at the peaks of their careers, then at least within head-spinning distance of them. 

Going beyond photography

The project was masterminded by Hip Hop Heritage founder Martin Jones: a former entertainment agent, organizer of the World Street Art Championships, and manager of breakdance crew Wolverhampton B Boys, whose members included future drum and bass pioneer, Goldie. 

In 2014, Jones’s photos of the 1980s UK B-boy scene became the core of a national archive, currently held at Dudley Archives and Local History Service. But when Wolverhampton B Boys member Keiado ‘Kiddo’ Anderson mentioned that his movement had been captured at Loughborough University, Jones began to explore mocap as an additional recording medium.

“Motion capture provides a much more detailed analysis of dance technique than video,” he argues. “It gives a 360-degree view of the dancer, at low, mid and high levels, and it can be user-controlled. Video can show you a great move, like a slam or a head spin, but you can’t analyze it clinically, as you can with mocap.”

Recreating a dance revolution

On top of that, there simply isn’t a lot of video. Aside from lone 1985 documentary Electro Rock, very little contemporary footage exists of 1980s British B-boy technique, with its unique fusion of then cutting-edge New York style and older British genres such as Northern soul and jazz fusion. 

To rectify the situation, Jones turned to one of the stars of Electro Rock: former London All Star Breakers member – and in Jones’s estimation, “probably the best-known breakdancer of that era” – Dolby D (David Bramothe). Along with former Kylie Minogue rapper Jazzy P (Pauline Bennett) and Yorkshire-based dancers 10 Tonn (Shane Fenton) and Sammy (Sammy Palmer), Dolby D was one of four UK breakdance pioneers recorded during a two-day shoot at Wolverhampton’s Newhampton Arts Centre theater in April 2015. 

The shoot, overseen by Vicon support manager Bob Dimmock, used an array of 10 Bonita B10 cameras to record the dancers’ moves, resulting in over 25 usable takes per dancer, averaging 15 seconds in length. Vicon staff then processed the data in Blade, Vicon’s motion-capture software, and later in Shōgun, Blade’s successor.

 “Using Shōgun gave us a big advantage and delivered clean, usable data automatically in one pass,” says Dimmock. 

Bringing data to life

Meanwhile, in 2017, Martin Jones secured funding from Artsfest, the University of Wolverhampton’s arts festival, to take the cleaned data a step further. Working through local producer Ben Field, Jones contracted CG artist Christian Darkin of Anachronistic to turn the live recordings into an animated digital version of Dolby D performing his signature moves. 

To maintain fidelity, Darkin stuck closely to the processed data. “I was surprised at how sharp it was,” he says. “What people call clean-up is often you as an artist making your guess at how the movement works. But this project wasn’t just about getting something that looked good: it was about cataloging what someone does with their arms and legs when they do a certain move.”

To test the data, Darkin imported it to 3ds Max via MotionBuilder, assigning it to a basic CATRig. For the final animation, the data was retargeted to a stock Poser figure. Darkin adjusted the figure’s face to match that of Dolby D, making further adjustments within ZBrush, before exporting the rigged character to 3ds Max. The facial textures are based on reference photos of the dancer, composited in Photoshop to create a diffuse map.

Spinning and windmilling forever

We’re commemorating what [the originators of those moves] achieved as dancers. Through motion capture, we’ve captured their essence, and through the archive, we’re giving them an afterlife so that they can carry on forever.”

Studios or university course leaders interested in working with Hip Hop Heritage to create animated characters and authentic 1980s dance environments based on the 2015 recordings can contact Martin Jones at [email protected].