We all know how far CGI characters on film have come thanks to the latest developments in movie magic. But sometimes you still need the input of a trained actor to bring that character to life. That’s where motion capture comes in, and it’s been a game-changer in helping to breathe life into our favorite creatures and characters on screen.
Famed motion capture performer Andy Serkis, the man behind Gollum, even presented the Oscar for Best Visual Effects at this year’s Academy Awards. But who else has donned a mocap tracking suit in style, or had their face painted with little dots, in the service of making the most memorable movie moments?
Here are the 10 Best Motion Capture Performances.
Robert Zemeckis’ first CGI motion capture outing The Polar Express suffered some harsh criticism for its ‘dead’ looking characters (what’s known as the uncanny valley). But by 2007 the director had amped up the tech to deliver more photorealistic performances in Beowulf, the tale of a legendary warrior who must slay a hideous creature, Grendel. Ray Winstone brought his distinctive hard man characteristics, and voice, to the role of the warrior via motion capture.
Interestingly, Beowulf was not modeled to look like Winstone, but that didn’t stop the English actor’s mannerisms coming through in the final animation. The most memorable scene? Beowulf confronts Grendel near naked and without a weapon. The scenes with Grendel’s mother, also sans many clothes, played by motion captured Angelina Jolie, aren’t so bad either.
John Carter didn’t have much luck captivating movie audiences when it was released. But if one performance stood out, it would have to be Willem Dafoe’s motion capture turn as the chieftain of the Green Martian clan on Mars, Tars Tarkas. To play the 7 foot tall, 4 armed creature, Dafoe wore a gray tracking suit on set and occasionally stood on stilts to be at the correct height.
He, and other motion captured actors playing the martians, wore a facial capture helmet to film his characteristic grimacing facial expressions. Effects artists later relied on this footage to produce Tarkas’ animation. Interestingly, to get even more acting reference after filming had wrapped — and whenever Dafoe was not available — animators had their own mocap suit which they used on themselves for specific actions.
When Seth MacFarlane set out to direct and star in Ted, the story of a subversive, potty mouthed teddy bear who lives with his best friend (played by Mark Wahlberg), he had a problem. How could MacFarlane be on set to direct the action and provide all the acting nuances for a character that would only later be digitally inserted ?
The answer lay in live motion capture - MacFarlane wore a special mocap suit on set so that in scenes where Ted appeared, the director would stand just off to the side and a live feed of him as the bear from his capture was overlaid onto monitors that everyone could see. That meant the filmmakers had an idea about how Ted should look in the final shot, giving actors something to directly play against.
These days, motion capture isn’t just the domain of bipedal characters. Sometimes the technology is used in highly creative ways, such as when Peter Jackson had Benedict Cumberbatch help bring the devastating titular dragon to life in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. While performing vocalizations for Smaug, the actor became fully immersed into character by lying on the floor and slithering around wearing a mocap suit, complete with facial tracking dots.
Cumberbatch’s expressional contortions were also captured in separate facial motion capture sessions. All this data was then incorporated into the final CG dragon by the visual effects artists at Weta Digital, who brought their own animation expertise to the fore for scenes of Smaug talking to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) amongst piles and piles of gold under the Lonely Mountain.
Before Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, rumours were rampant about which character Lupita Nyong'o had signed on to play. The actress was then photographed wearing a motion capture suit with tracking dots on her face, making it clear she would be portraying a fully computer generated being somewhere in the Star Wars universe. This turned out to be Maz Kanata, a tavern owner with a mysterious past on the planet Takodana.
Nyong’o’s motion captured performance for the orange-skinned pirate informed the final CGI work by Industrial Light & Magic. The studio utilized specialized software to transform the facial shapes made by the actress to the correct proportions of Maz, complete with those huge goggle glasses.
Meanwhile, we're just hoping we get to see Maz's deleted force-using scene in the very near future.
It can be a tough life being an artificially intelligent robot, especially when you get kidnapped by gangsters and are forced to lead a life of crime. At least, that’s what happens to Chappie, a completely CG character played expertly by Sharlto Copley in Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi film.
While Copley’s portrayal as the funky bot in Chappie was not strictly motion capture — the actor did wear a tracking suit on set but not for movement data — animators still referenced the actor’s frame-by-frame actions to make the final robot. All the little things Copley put into the character therefore made it onto the screen. Indeed, Copley’s dedication to the robot saw him take Chappie from having almost baby-like qualities to maturity, as his artificial intelligence kicks in gradually throughout the course of the film.
You wouldn’t think Serkis could ever out-do his past motion capture performances, but he almost manages to pull it off with Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Despite only uttering a few words in the whole film, Serkis realizes the genetically modified and intelligent ape with stunning precision and emotion. Many of the other apes were also brought to life using motion capture, with the actors being trained in ape movement and even wearing special forearm extensions for the roles.
Serkis’ performance as Caesar also spurred on the debate about whether motion capture performances should be recognized with traditional acting awards (a debate that sometimes forgets how crucial animators and effects artists are to the final CGI character).
Not to be outdone by Serkis, Toby Kebbell is equally impressive as Caesar’s lieutenant/rival Koba in the previous film's sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Unlike Caesar, Koba holds a grudge against the humans and seeks revenge, setting up a final confrontation between him and the leader of the apes.
The best scene? When Koba comes across two humans guarding a weapons armory and pretends to be a simple-minded ape. Here he takes on traditional ape characteristics by rolling around and scratching his head before suddenly changing tact to steal an assault rifle, using it to kill the guards. That personality shift performed by Kebbell in motion capture is beautifully executed by the animation team.
James Cameron had dabbled in motion capture briefly on Titanic, as many of the ship’s passengers were based on little motion capture vignettes or stunt action. But with Avatar, the director went on full-on mocap franzy. To depict the native Na'vi inhabitants of the planet Pandora, Cameron had his actors, including Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, perform within a motion capture volume (a dedicated stage) wearing mocap suits and a skull cap with a camera fixed to a boom away from their face, itself covered in tracking dots. What’s more, all their actions could be viewed in realtime translated to rough character models and environments.
Saldana was particularly impressive in bringing Neytiri to life - it’s worth checking out some of the side by side videos of the actress in motion capture suit and the final CGI character in scenes like the one where Neytiri learns that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has betrayed her trust after being initiated into the tribe. The power in her performance truly shines through, helping the audience to forget for a moment that they're essentially watching a Pocahontas reenactment with big blue aliens.
Andy Serkis and the filmmakers behind The Lord of the Rings dramatically altered the approach to motion capture with Gollum. Previously, motion capture had mostly been used just to get accurate gross movements of body motion. But Serkis and the visual effects crew at Weta Digital changed all that when the actor’s direct facial and body performance was translated to the haplessly hopeless Gollum (for both the creature’s personalities).
In the first incarnation of Gollum for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Serkis performed initially in a skin-tight suit on set and then replicated his performance later in the full motion capture get-up on a dedicated stage. Later in the Hobbit films, mocap tech had improved dramatically enough for Serkis to act as Gollum in a motion capture suit during filming, not just in a special motion capture stage. Serkis has gone on to become a specialist mocap performer (in King Kong, the Apes films and as Snoke in The Force Awakens), shaping himself into the unsung hero of the film industry. The actor has even started his own mocap studio called The Imaginarium, so be on the look out for many more motion capture characters from the industry pioneer.
Did we miss any of your favorite motion capture performances? Let us know in the comments below.