Motion capture, also known as ‘performance capture’ and ‘mo-cap’, is a process of placing special markers along the face and bodies of an actor that can be picked up by a series of special cameras that will translate the actors facial expressions and gestures to a 2D or 3D animated character. The actor’s movements can be translated to an animated ‘puppet’ almost instantly. This puppet is only a rough design of the character, but it gives directors and actors enough insight to know when to go for a second take or new blocking in regards to an animated character that can’t physically be on set. The process has come a long way in cinema since the technique has become more commonly used.
Before its use in film, motion capture was used in the medical field to help the developers of prosthetic limbs better understand the movement of joints and limbs in the human body. The technique was put to similar use in the field of robotics so developers could create working robotic limbs and to create robots that didn’t rely on wheels for movement so they could travel along irregular terrain. Motion capture also saw heavy use for actors in video games to help give generally stale video game performances a heightened realism.
In cinema, motion capture became a replacement for an early animation technique known as rotoscoping; a process of painting an animated character over a live actor in a scene. In the earlier days of motion capture, rotoscoping was used in conjunction with mo-cap to portray characters that couldn’t be believably created with practical effects or CGI alone in a live-action film. As the technology has progressed, rotoscoping is being used less and less, and motion capture is quickly becoming the standard technique for bringing CGI characters to life. The process has even been used on voice actors in fully animated movies to allow more of the actor to come through in the animated character.
From its humble beginnings as a tool to study movement, the process has created some truly memorable characters in modern cinema. Let’s take a look at some of the better examples of motion capture characters in recent years.
10. Grendel – Crispin Glover: Beowulf (2007)
Beowulf was a fully animated film from director Robert Zemeckis. Motion capture was used for many of the films characters to put actors with the right voices into characters whose physical descriptions didn’t quite line-up. For example, it put Anthony Hopkins‘ likeness and voice into the body of the glutton King Hrothgar. Similarly, it put the voice of Ray Winstone into the chiseled frame of Beowulf. However, it would be with Crispin Glover’s man-eating demon Grendel that the technique was most necessary.
In addition to capturing facial expressions and movement, Glover was captured while rigged to bungee systems, as to mimic Grendel’s agility and leaping abilities. Glover even learned Anglo-Saxon (Old English) for the role.
9. Dobby – Toby Jones: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 (2010)
Any film crew would be hard pressed to find an actor that looked like Dobby. Even though the goblins of Gringotts in the Potter films were achieved with short actors and make-up effects, Dobby needed a look that was far enough apart from the goblins of the film to avoid looking too similar. Motion capture and rotoscoping were used to transform actor Toby Jones into everyone’s favorite little house elf.
Jones played Dobby in other installments of the Potter series, but it was in The Deathly Hallows that the emotional range of a talented actor would be most necessary to keep some of the character’s moments and emotions most believable.
8. The Mach Armors – Robert Downey Jr and Don Cheadle: Iron Man films (2008 – 2013)
You didn’t think they just made that armor, did you? In reality, the armors developed by Tony Stark in the Iron Man films would be much too cumbersome and clunky to achieve the range of motion Cheadle and Downey exhibit in the Iron Man and Avengers films.
While there are many scenes where Downey is wearing prop armor, scenes that required a fair amount of action and movement, or where the suit had to do mechanical things a prop costume wasn’t capable of, were achieved with motion capture.
7. Ted – Seth Macfarlane: Ted (2012)
Even a character that is inherently encumbered due to their dimensions, for example, a teddy bear, can benefit from motion capture.
Seth Macfarlane suited up in a motion capture suit so the animators could capture his mannerisms as he provided the voice for Ted. The suit wasn’t as sophisticated as those seen in films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes or The Lord of the Rings, but it did allow the character to have movement and a voice that complimented each other more organically.
6. Gollum – Andy Serkis: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films (2001 – 2012)
It could easily be argued that Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films is what really changed the tide for motion capture performances in films. The role made Andy Serkis the go-to actor for motion capture roles that required a lot of emotion to come out of CGI characters. More importantly, it showcased mo-cap’s effectiveness.
Andy’s skill with the technique has even made him a go-to consultant for films casting other actors in motion capture roles. Serkis has even started The Imaginarium Studios to assist films using the motion capture technology.
5. Neytiri – Zoe Saldana: Avatar (2009)
James Cameron sums up just how much more of an actor gets to come through using motion capture to animate when he said that Saldana would have won an Oscar if people truly understood how much of the actor comes through in motion capture performances.
4. Tintin – Jamie Bell: The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Jamie Bell in the roll of Tintin is a great example of motion capture used in fully animated films. Sometimes the best actor for a role doesn’t always look the part. Since The Adventures of Tintin was based on a comic, it allowed live actors to totally immerse themselves into their parts, yet still allow their on-screen characters to have the same cartoonish appearances from the comics. It also allowed the animated characters and objects to have a much more realistic sense of weight and gravity to them.
3. Smaug – Benedict Cumberbatch: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
This use of motion capture seems at first to be a little unnecessary as the dimensions of Smaug’s are so much different than a human’s. However, it does give the animators better insight as to how Cumberbatch expressed emotion while delivering his lines, which is one of the major benefits to motion capture. It’s always helpful for an animator to have a visual reference for an emotion or expression, rather than going from memory. Cumberbatch even wore a full lycra suit for the role, which allowed the animators to make Smaug move in the same way the actor would imagine.
2. The Incredible Hulk – Mark Ruffalo: The Avengers (2012)
Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time that motion capture was used to portray the Hulk on screen, but when Mark Ruffalo took the role of Bruce Banner/Hulk it would be the first time that the same actor that played Bruce Banner also played the Hulk. This resulted in a great cohesiveness between the two identities.
1. Caesar – Andy Serkis: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Andy Serkis is the man when it comes to motion capture acting. Not only has he played the most memorable motion capture characters of all time, but he even consulted with Mark Ruffalo to bring his Hulk to life, and has even been brought on to JJ Abrams’ new Star Wars as a consultant and quite possibly a character or two as well.
Past Apes films used make-up effects, but Serkis played the character of Caesar as a normal ape in his youth, and as an intelligent ape walking fully erect. More ape-like features were able to be retained, so it was more visually striking to see the intelligence of man in the body of an ape. Make-up would have been too restrictive to allow for that range of emotion in a non-human character.