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How is sport like digital animation?

Senior students in Wellington explore the science behind jumping, arm-wrestling and even digitally created characters.

What does playing a sport have in common with the computer generated characters used in blockbuster movies? The answer lies in the science of how we move: biomechanics.

Students at Wellington Girls’ School, Wellington East Girls' College and Queen Margaret College have been finding out why our bodies move the way they do, as part of New Zealand’s first National Biomechanics Day.

Girls arm wrestling

The idea of a national day for biomechanics was inspired by the same concept in the US, which was brought over in part by US expat and Massey University biomechanics Senior Lecturer Sarah Schultz.

“We use biomechanics all the time and in everything we do, but nobody knows what it is,” Sarah explains.

“We all learn biology, maths and physics at school but nobody actually really knows what it is when you combine them all. So we thought it’d be cool to have a national day dedicated to sharing that.”

At Massey University, Sarah and a team of volunteers set up two rooms: a digital animation studio and a makeshift ‘sports science’ room.

Using the markers

In the studio, the students learnt how computer-generated imagery (CGI) professionals, like Julian Butler at Weta Digital, create incredibly realistic digital characters for games and films.

Julian, who has made characters for big films such as The Hobbit, The Jungle Book and the upcoming War for the Planet of the Apes, briefly visited the students to share how he designs characters.

The students had a go at creating wireframes by donning suits with lots of markers connected to a digital motion system. Each marker has a specific reference point that appears as a dot on a computer screen.


The system then co-ordinates these dots to create a real-time digital ‘skeleton’ that moves in exactly the same way as the person wearing the suit.

“We start with these and then add a layer at a time to make the movement of the character as realistic as possible,” Julian explains. “First we have the skeleton, then we add muscle and then a layer of fat before putting the skin on top. All these layers behave as if they would in real life.”

The second room was set up with three activity stations to explore what kind of forces and energy are involved in particular movements such as how we move in particular ways.


At the first station, the students attached an electromyograph to their wrist flexors, which measures and shows a graph of the electrical signals causing our muscles to contract when being used.

The students squeezed stress relief balls while their wrist was in different positions, to see what a muscle contraction looks like on screen, and then did an arm wrestling challenge to see how hard these muscles worked even when the joint was not moving.

star jumps with the insoles

Next, the students put special insoles inside their shoes and did activities like walking, running, hopping, jumping or ‘piggybacking’ another student. These insoles are linked to a computer and measure the amount of force exerted onto the body during these activities.

The final station involved simply jumping off a table onto sheets of bubble wrap. This was set up as a fun way for the students to see and hear the impact of forces during landing and they learnt how different landings can produce different impacts on the joints.

girls jumping on bubble wrap

“I liked the arm wrestling because it was really interesting and fun,” says Charlotte, 16, a student at Wellington Girls’ School.

“I thought the jumping exercise was really useful because I play basketball a lot and this will help me to think about how to land properly so that I can avoid injuries,” says her classmate Jordyn, 16.

Niquith, 17, at Wellington East agrees: “I play netball so I found the jumping activity really good.”

Insoles and jumping station

Check out the NZ National Biomechanics Day Facebook page

Visit the NZ National Biomechanics Day website

About the project

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NZ National Biomechanics Day
is supported by the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.



Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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