Jakob Balslev, CEO & Co-Founder, Rokoko

Rokoko: Reimagining the Possibilities of the Animation Industry

What do you think about when you watch modern superhero movies shooting lasers, smashing through buildings, or wearing a suit made of Vibranium? Our childhood dreams come true when we see these heroes on screen – delivering enthralling experiences and immense satisfaction. What makes these superhero movies, or any motion picture with stunning CGI, provide visual pleasure is the magic of Visual Effects.

Animation and VFX have transformed the modern-day entertainment industry. As we are moving closer towards evolutionary cutting-edge animation technology and character development, we can see more detailed, accurate, and high-quality graphics, this is due to the advancement in 3D motion capture technology. It has now become easy to create, record, track, stream and customise things with easy access and lesser time.

One prominent company, which is driving the motion capture technology industry to new heights is Rokoko – providing 3D character animation software and animation tools like motion capture smart suits, gloves, and face capture, and a motion library that helps in producing extraordinary user-friendly styles of visual effects with tracking of body movements.

In the following interview, Jakob Balslev, the CEO and Co-founder shares about his  aim to democratize motion capture and how he and his team are revolutionising the animation industry.

Following are the highlights of the interview:

Please brief our audience about Rokoko, its USPs, and how you are changing the traditional ways of motion capture through your innovative products.

Motion capture traditionally required huge studio space with infrared cameras and hours of calibration before you could record even a single frame. Our tools can be set up anywhere by anyone, and you can go from idea to recording in minutes. With a price point that’s a fraction of the existing systems on the market, Rokoko democratized mocap and reached an entirely new audience – the emerging creators.

While we have customers like Netflix, Disney, Sony, Microsoft, more than 60% of our users are independent creators that are often single-handedly producing their content and publishing on social media channels. We’re seeing how our tools are enabling an increasing number of them to quit their daytime job and live off of their channels in the booming “creator economy.”

After creating tools for body, finger, and face capture, we are now turning towards the software side of the equation and will be launching equally disruptive animation software tools over the next few years.

Being an experienced leader, share with us your opinion on what impact has the adoption of AI and machine learning technologies had on the animation and digital motion niche, and what more could be expected in the future?

As with any modern start up, machine learning plays an increasingly critical role in our products. Rokoko is sitting on the world’s largest collection of motion data and machine learning which helps us leverage that into improving every aspect of our platform and tools, making motion capture easier for the end-user.

Computer vision solutions for motion capture are already being adopted (and possibly soon commoditized) by the large tech giants, allowing everyone to do very simple camera-based motion capture.

There are some innate constraints in camera-based solutions, such as occlusion and line of sight being the main two that will always make it suboptimal for a lot of use bases – e.g., how will you track your hands behind your back or your legs behind a sofa if a camera always needs a clear vision. Rokoko’s biggest bet on the hardware front addresses exactly that issue and will be released in 2022.

We are utilising AI/ML for two key advancements:

  1. Making more complex animation editing more intuitive, therefore allowing less technical animators to achieve highly complex movements in just a few clicks.
  2. Allowing animators to take a range of different movements and fuse them with consistent style and nuance, to help animators maintain consistent personality across their characters.

Within each of these two advances, we’re effectively utilizing AI/ML to make the entire process of animating characters simpler and faster, in line with our mission to democratise 3D content creation.

Considering the current pandemic, what initial challenges did you face and how did you drive Rokoko to sustain operations while ensuring the safety of your employees at the same time?

Given that our starting point was creating tools that could be used anywhere and didn’t need a dedicated studio or staff, we’ve seen the opposite of the decline of many other companies in this pandemic – massive growth. Our tools were made to enable “work from home” and so we had a head start when that was what everybody suddenly had to do.

However, similar to all other hardware companies, we are now suffering a lot from the shortages in components worldwide, due to challenges acquiring technical components and increased shipping times. Even though we are putting in very large orders, there’s no way we can compete with Apple, Tesla, and the other tech giants who are using some of the same components we are.

Luckily, we’ve found a solution that will help us catch up and be back to normal from this fall, but it’s been a rough couple of months for our waiting creators and we’re immensely grateful for the patience our waiting customers have shown.

What would be your advice to budding entrepreneurs who aspire to venture into the animation and digital motion space?

Think big from the start and bet on the emerging market.

  • Think globally from day one: The world of entertainment tends to think very isolated, short-term, and project-to-project, making them lose the bigger picture. A viable startup needs to think about scalability and the entertainment space, you need to think globally from day one.

Luckily, storytelling, like music, is a universal language and the similarities in workflows and desires from a creator in Europe to a creator in Africa, Asia, etc. are striking. Founders need to consider personas and project types rather than traditional marketing demographics such as geography, languages, and so on.

  • Bet on the creator economy: Platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube have enabled the new generation of creators to find their audience and built a strong relationship with them in a timeframe that was unheard of just a few years back.

They are going from idea to publishing in days and the creativity—both in content and business approach—is just exploding. There’s certainly a lot of growth in the top of the industry as well with the demand from the streaming platforms, but if I had to bet today, I would bet on Gen Z.

How do you envision scaling Rokoko’s operations and offerings in 2021?

Although we’ve been profitable for a while now, we just raised another small round to put even more speed on our new strategic initiatives. To support our HQ in Copenhagen, we’ve opened a development office in Athens that’s growing very rapidly and generating immense value for us, and we’re hiring in a lot of different positions in the US.

The next big frontier for us is going into Asia. Given that we’ve had no presence or dedicated focus there yet, it’s remarkable to see how large a share of our customers come from Asia. I can’t wait to see what will happen when we venture in the full speed before long.

About the Leader  

CEO Jakob Balslev’s graduation project from film school was his first meeting with motion capture, and while it showed the power of the technology, it also showed Jakob how ripe it was for disruption. To realize all the ideas, he had for this tech, it would have to be rebuilt to fit the modern creator.

In March 2014, Jakob quit his job as a film producer, teamed up with his long-time friend Matias Søndergaard, a business school student and expert in the disruption of 3D printers, and Anders Klok, a self-taught animator and inventor, and founded Rokoko with a mission to democratize motion capture.

In this journey, the three friends have seen that the need to understand and work with digital human motion goes way beyond the entertainment industry. With more than 100 employees, Rokoko is now branching into other industries like health, sports, fitness, manufacturing, robotics, and automotive.

What users have to say

“An inertial suit can be used pretty much anywhere – if I’m using motion capture, I want to use it for everything. Not just simple animations, I want to run, I want to fall, I want to do stunts… I was impressed on every front by the Rokoko Smartsuit so that’s why I chose it.” –  Loacher Films, VFX Animator

“Rokoko is an incredible time-saving solution for animation. Capturing movement, retargeting, and then having directly such a human nature into the character movements changes everything.” – Vicki Dang

“Before I bought the Smartsuit Pro, there was a competitor, however when I saw the data coming out of Rokoko, I knew that was the one!” – Don Allen III, Animation Teacher at Dreamworks and Freelance VFX artist

“Great customer support, killer product at an even better price point. By leaps and bounds the best mocap suit in the industry for the price right now.” – Matt Brown

“I could have animated that shot and spent a week on just trying to do those 2 seconds of animation and it still wouldn’t have looked as good. We recorded all of those movements in only 15 minutes.” – Ian Hubert