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?
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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.

Cover Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

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Why High School Musicals Should Be As Respected As Sports Programs Are

The arts are important, too.
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When I was in middle school and high school, I felt like I lived for the musicals that my school orchestrated.

For those of you who don't know, a musical is an onstage performance wherein actors take on roles that involve singing, and often dancing, to progress the plot of the story. While it may sound a little bit nerdy to get up in front of an audience to perform in this manner, this is something you cannot knock until you try it.

For some reason, though, many public schools have de-funded arts programs that would allow these musicals to occur, while increasing the funding for sports teams. There are a few things that are being forgotten when sports are valued more than musical programs in high schools.

Much like athletic hobbies, an actor must try-out, or audition, to participate in a musical. Those best suited for each role will be cast, and those who would not fit well are not given a part. While this may sound similar to trying out for say, basketball, it is an apples to oranges comparison.

At a basketball try-out, those who have the most experience doing a lay-up or shooting a foul shot will be more likely to succeed, no questions asked. However, for an audition, it is common to have to learn a piece of choreography upon walking in, and a potential cast member will be required to sing a selected piece with only a few days of preparation.

There are many more variables involved with an audition that makes it that much more nerve-racking.

The cast of a school musical will often rehearse for several months to perfect their roles, with only several nights of performance at the end. Many sports practice for three or four days between each of their respective competitions. While this may seem to make sports more grueling, this is not always the case.

Musicals have very little pay-off for a large amount of effort, while athletic activities have more frequent displays of their efforts.

Athletes are not encouraged to but are allowed to make mistakes. This is simply not allowed for someone in a musical, because certain lines or entrances may be integral to the plot.

Sometimes, because of all the quick changes and the sweat from big dance numbers, the stage makeup just starts to smear. Despite this, an actor must smile through it all. This is the part of musicals that no sport has: introspection.

An actor must think about how he or she would respond in a given situation, be it saddening, maddening, frightening, or delightful. There is no sport that requires the knowledge of human emotion, and there is especially no sport that requires an athlete to mimic such emotion. This type of emotional exercise helps with communications and relationships.

Sports are great, don't get me wrong. I loved playing volleyball, basketball, track, and swimming, but there were no experiences quite like those from a musical. Sports challenge the body with slight amounts of tactic, while musicals require much physical and mental endurance.

The next time you hear someone say that it's “just a musical," just remember that musicals deserve as much respect as sports, since they are just as, if not more demanding.

Cover Image Credit: Cincinnati Arts

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10 Shows To Watch If You're Sick Of 'The Office'

You can only watch it so many times...

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"The Office" is a great show, and is super easy to binge watch over and over again! But if you're like me and you're looking for something new to binge, why not give some of these a try? These comedies (or unintentional comedies) are a great way to branch out and watch something new.

1. "New Girl"

A show about a group of friends living in an apartment in a big city? Sound familiar? But seriously, this show is original and fresh, and Nick Miller is an icon.

2. "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"

Ya'll have been sleeping on this show. It's a musical comedy about a girl that follows her ex boyfriend across the country. I thought it sounded horrible so I put it off for WAY too long, but then I realized how incredible the cast, music, writing, and just EVERYTHING. It really brings important issues to light, and I can't say too much without spoiling it. Rachel Bloom (the creator of the show) is a woman ahead of her time.

3. "Jane the Virgin"

I know... another CW show. But both are so incredible! Jane The Virgin is a tongue-in-cheek comedy and parody of telenovelas. It has so many twists and turns, but somehow you find yourself laughing with the family.

4. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been in popular news lately since its cancellation by Fox and sequential pickup by NBC. It's an amazing show about cops in, you guessed it, Brooklyn. Created by the amazing Michael Schur, it's a safe bet that if you loved "The Office" you'll also love his series "Brooklyn Nine-Nine".

5. "The Good Place"

Another series created by the talented Micael Schur, it's safe to say you've probably already heard about this fantasy-comedy series. With a wonderful cast and writing that will keep you on your toes, the show is another safe bet.

6. "Fresh Off The Boat"

Seriously, I don't know why more people don't watch this show. "Fresh Off The Boat" focuses on an Asian family living in Orlando in the mid 90s. Randall Parks plays a character who is the polar opposite of his character in "The Interview" (Yeah, remember that horrifying movie?) and Constance Wu is wonderful as always.

7. "Full House"

Why not go back to the basics? If you're looking for a nostalgic comedy, go back all the way to the early days of Full House. If you're a '98-'00 baby like me, you probably grew up watching the Tanner family on Nick at Night. The entire series is available on Hulu, so if all else fails just watch Uncle Jesse and Rebecca fall in love again or Michelle fall off a horse and somehow lose her memory.

8. "Secret Life of the American Teenager"

Okay, this show is not a comedy, but I have never laughed so hard in my life. It's off Netflix but it's still on Hulu, so you can watch this masterpiece there. Watch the terrible acting and nonsense plot twists drive this show into the ground. Somehow everyone in this school dates each other? And also has a baby? You just have to watch. It might be my favorite show of all time.

9. "Scrubs"

Another old show that is worth watching. If you ignore the last season, Scrubs is a worthwhile medical comedy about doctors in both their personal and medical life. JD and Turk's relationship is one to be jealous of, and one hilarious to watch. Emotional at times, this medical drama is superior to any medical drama that's out now.

10. "Superstore"

I was resistant to watch this one at first, because it looked cheesy. But once I started watching I loved it! The show is a workplace comedy, one you're sure to love if you can relate to working in retail. If you liked the Office, you'll like Superstore!

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