Motion Capture: Underrated and Unknown Acting

Motion Capture: Underrated and Unknown Acting

Motion-capture technology has allowed for actors to play any role without the need of makeup - so why isn't it more respected?

20th Century Fox

Since the early days of Hollywood, special effects have constantly been advancing. Even now, just over one hundred years from A Trip to the Moon, you can go online and download a basic filmmaking program for free or a low cost – some can even handle minor digital effects. And even older than film effects, is putting actors in makeup and costumes to change their appearance – something as old as performance itself. In the modern era, the use of computer generated imagery has allowed for actors to play any part, in any environment, no matter how large. Motion-capture is one of the most well known aspects of modern filmmaking, with several films, including the recent Star Wars movies, having entire lead characters created with the system. However, it is not without controversies, nor was it something that just happened.

Essentially, motion capture is a modern-day version of rotoscoping. In the late 1930s/early 1940s, all animation was hand-drawn frame by frame, and oftentimes there would be something they wanted to animated that was difficult to draw freehand – so they would take an actor in full costume, film them doing the action, then draw over each frame. An early example would be the World War II era Superman cartoons, in which several close-up shots of Superman were rotoscoped using in-studio reference actors. Eventually, rotoscoping would be abandoned in favor of using models or highly-detailed animation, though of course the live-action reference actors would still be used to track motion in the animation cels. Almost thirty year later, Ralph Bakshi produced an animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and due to the complex nature of the story and the Middle-Earth setting, he elected to use a much more detailed method of rotoscoping, making little effort to hide the fact that the audience would be seeing both cartoon characters and incredibly detailed drawings over stunt actors. The film featured a cast of relatively unknown actors, along with John Hurt as Aragorn and Anthony Daniels as Legolas, and was a moderate success. This adaptation is what brought the world of J.R.R. Tolkien to Peter Jackson, who went on to direct the groundbreaking 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy – which much like the 1978 film, experimented with the limits of special effects and blurring the line between reality and animation.

New Zealand based special effects company Weta Workshop, was brought in to help develop the processes to bring Lord of the Rings to total live-action. In addition to designing countless practical effects and miniatures for selected shots, they were also put up to the task of creating the ring-crazed Gollum. Meanwhile, in the world of video games, experiments were being done using actors in skintight grey bodysuits that tracked the actors' movements – and Weta saw the opportunity to use this technology in crafting the creature. In late 1998, they started using regular CGI to prove that it was in fact possible to make a realistic humanlike body, and a few months later, filming began on the trilogy. After they showed the capabilities of computer effects, Andy Serkis was cast as Gollum, set to provide the voice and physical reference for the team to animate over. Serkis was was there to film each of his scenes twice – once with him with the other actors, delivering lines and moving around like he would a normal performance, and once without him at all, as to give a background plane for the Weta team. Meanwhile, the team was planning on using him as a simple reference, but it was determined that the co-stars were doing much better if they could actually act alongside Serkis, and the decision was made to use the motion capture system, with Serkis in the “ping-pong ball” covered suit, to track all motion and movements.

At the time, it wasn't possible to really capture the actor's face, and thus Gollum's facial movements were completely CGI. Andy Serkis returned to motion capture on Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong, cementing his career in the field. By 2006, Weta was continuing to advance their award-winning effects, and during production on James Cameron's motion-capture filled Avatar, developed a headset-mounted camera that would be facing the actor and recording every facial expression and movement, so that the entire portrayal could be presented through the CGI overlays. This instantly proved incredibly useful, and allowed for the performances of the cast to be in the final product, not just used as something to match up the voices to. Avatar was another big hit, breaking several box office records and the effects being highly praised. This would continue to be developed and enhanced, and within a matter of years, the use of the head-mounted camera would become the norm, further pushing away the concept of mo-cap actors being “glorified voice actors.”

The Planet of the Apes series has continued to further push ahead the capabilities of motion capture. 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes gave us a hyper-realistic and incredibly detailed CGI ape, Caesar, played by Andy Serkis (as with many motion capture characters). Instead of filming on a soundstage separate from the main set, Weta was able to have the actors on set, and then isolate their performance without needing to film it all over again. The sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes added to the abilities of “digital makeup,” with the ape civilization looking near photorealistic, to very high praise from critics and audiences. Through these films, the potential for uses of the system have been increased, even to a point of using them to make things simple for the on-set actor and the digital effects teams. For example,Tom Hollad wore a mo-cap suit for much of the filming on the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War so that the effects could all be added in without having to fight against the bright color of his Spider-Man costume and the greenscreen. A similar method was used for Spider-Man's appearance in Captain America: Civil War, though some shots did involve a physical costume.

Of course, no discussion on motion-capture could not include the controversy over whether or not the actors are really “acting.” According to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (the Academy Awards), actors like Andy Serkis are more of a voice actor than a physical one, as they are just being a basis for the special effects crew to reference. That couldn't be further from the truth – every breath, every look, every single movement, is done by the mo-cap actor. The only difference is that instead of being put in a makeup chair, they wear a standard gray suit and “digital makeup” is put over them. Performances such as Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy, Andy Serkis in Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes, and the cast of Avatar were not even considered for the big Academy Awards, simply because they do not feel they are really acting. They put much more effort than most actors would, having to also act in the mannerisms of their non-human characters – such as wearing arm extensions to move like a chimpanzee. Reviews for War for the Planet of the Apes are calling for Andy Serkis to win an Oscar. Maybe the Academy will finally change their mind on what “real acting” is.

Motion-capture is here to stay. Characters like K-2SO and Maz Kanata have joined the ranks of amazing digital characters, and the actors playing the parts have achieved high praise and a place in modern pop culture, not like Gollum. There is something to respect about this type of acting, as it requires both physicality and vocal performances in a way that a regular performance rarely needs. It is also a testament to the talent of computer effects artists, as they have to take the actor and turn them into something completely inhuman, without losing any aspect of the actual acting. Since Lord of the Rings, the technology has advanced, and considering how commonplace it is starting to become, it isn't going to be too long before there is a motion-capture add-on to a free film editor/effects program. And maybe one of these days, a motion-capture performance will be nominated for one of the main Oscar categories.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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