Hans Sturm of the School of Music collaborated with Ball State's Biomechanics Lab to capture the legendary bowing technique of world-renowned double bassist François Rabbath using motion capture technology and 3-D animated graphics.
The Art of the Bow with François Rabbath was filmed in Ball State's Biomechanics Lab. Spherical sensors covering Rabbath's high-tech bodysuit reflect infrared light, transmitting each movement to create a digital model.
Sturm—professor of double bass at Ball State and himself a performer widely recognized in classical and jazz circles—remembers the eureka moment that would eventually result in Art of the Bow. While returning home following a coaching session with Rabbath in Paris, Sturm was perusing an in-flight magazine article about the scientific applications behind the Tiger Woods golf video game.
Sturm, who has studied with Rabbath for more than five years, thought about the difficulty in describing the intricacies of his mentor's technique. "I wondered whether this technology could be used to capture the subtle motion of Rabbath's legendary bow arm," he recalls.
Sturm's epiphany propelled him to Dugan and the Biomechanics Lab, where the project was a perfect fit for its research agenda—to understand the mechanical and neuromuscular characteristics of human movement. Fortunately, the enthusiasm of the two Ball State faculty members was matched by that of Rabbath, who traveled from Paris to Muncie to participate in the development of the work.
The master's bowing technique was filmed in the Biomechanics Lab with the assistance of Ball State University Teleplex personnel and Randy Allen, a California-based videographer and longtime friend of Sturm, who was integral to the technical and creative success of the project. The process required Rabbath to don a form-fitting high-tech bodysuit covered with reflective, spherical sensors. Infrared light picks up the reflection of the tracking sensors, transmitting each movement of fingers, wrist, and bow arm into data, which is then manipulated through instrumentation and software to create a digital model of Rabbath's subtle movements.
The high-speed capture of these nuances creates a graphically realistic, interactive, and analytical tool. While traditional music publications or videos are limited to illustrations or photographs from a single viewpoint, the DVD's four camera angles enable a student to select viewing options that focus on an angle of particular interest. Motion-capture technology—most commonly associated with video games and movie animation—also affords students the ability to watch a lesson scene by scene through stick figure representations or tubular format images that demonstrate hand-arm rotation.
As a result of the pioneering in-depth study and its accompanying performances and interviews, the DVD has received international acclaim. Ranked as the fourth best-selling DVD on FilmBaby.com, Art of the Bow has been viewed by some 4,000 attendees at the American String Teachers Association annual conference in March 2006; hailed as a "pedagogical tour de force" by Bass World Journal; and featured in USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, and the prestigious magazine The Strad.
Closer to home, Ball State student Fred Bledsoe reports, "Art of the Bow helped improve the flexibility in my bowing hand, and I was able to create a smoother phrase," and former Sturm student Lauren Taylor remarks, "When I approached the Art of the Bow, it really sank in that I can be an artist!"
A similar project featuring the other half of a bass player's "equipment"—the left hand—is now underway at Ball State, the first and only university to apply motion-capture technology in such a venture. Art of the Left Hand will capture and communicate what Sturm describes as the "fingering gymnastics for which Rabbath is so famous." Scheduled for release in 2006, the companion product will use high-speed, high-definition video cameras; infrared light-capture; and animation software.