By Ben Lashar
When most people think of motion capture, they probably think of actors prancing around in leotards covered in Ping Pong balls. The process can look silly, but motion capture is a tech trend showing no sign of slowing down. Upcoming movie Ready Player One and Venom, even boast about their creative use of motion capture. From Gollum to Groot, motion capture showcases the imagination of some of Hollywood’s most creative minds. Today, motion capture is evolving to new creative and technological heights.
The Evolution of a Medium
Motion capture technology is best defined as physical movement being transferred from one medium to another. While some form of motion capture technology has been around since the 1800s, the first use for movies was Max Fleischer’s rotoscope films in 1915. The process involved Fleischer tracing animation over filmstrips of actors doing what he wanted his animated character to do. Rotoscope motion capture became a popular technique for animators.
Digital animators in the 1990’s and 2000’s had considerably more trouble figuring out motion capture. 1999’s Star Wars the Phantom Menace introduced Jar Jar Binks, the first fully motioned captured character. Jar Jar Bink’s poor reception did little to prove the potential of digital motion capture. The first attempts at making fully motion captured movies failed, with both Sinbad: Beyond The Veil Of Mists and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within unable to turn a profit.
Motion capture seemed like it would be a passing fad. This was not the case though. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers shocked the world with Gollum, played by Andy Serkis. Gollum proved two things about motion-captured characters. First, technology had reached a point where they could look realistic. Second, skilled filmmakers can make motion captured characters feel real.
After Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers proved popular with critics and audiences, Hollywood became more open to motion capture. Acclaimed filmmaker Robert Zemekis even created his own studio to create completely motion-captured animated films. Polar Express, the first movie Zemekis made with this style, became a big success. In 2009 James Cameron used motion capture to filled an entire alien world in Avatar, and in 2014 Andy Serkis once again showcased the power of motion capture in his silent but emotionally profound portrayal of Caesar the ape in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Currently, motion capture is at the height of its popularity. At least eight of 2017’s top ten highest grossing movies used motion capture of some kind. While not one of the 10 highest grossing movies, War for the Planet of the Apes also received immense critical praise for further improving the technology and acting that brought the apes to life.
The trend looks like it will continue from here. Two of this year’s most anticipated movies, Venom and Ready Player One, are confirmed to be using motion capture. On the business end, the 3D motion capture market is projected to reach a global $142.5 million in revenue by 2020.
Studios, actors, and critics are largely accepting of motion capture’s increase in popularity. Many are even calling the Oscars to recognize motion capture performances. After Dawn of the Planet of the Apes released in 2014, Fox vigorously campaigned the Oscar committee to nominate Andy Circus’s performance.
In a recent interview, Serkis voiced similar thoughts, saying motion capture “should just be treated as acting. There’s no difference in preparing for and becoming the character I play in Black Panther, Ulysses Klaue, and the way I turn up on set and play Caesar.” Many notable critics echo Serkis’ opinion, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times calling Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar, “one of the marvels of modern screen acting.”
Motion capture is most likely here to stay. Popular comic book and sci-fi movies require the technology for many characters, and motion capture has been used too long to be considered a passing fad. There are benefits and drawbacks to motion capture being so prevalent.
Pros and Cons
Proponents claim motion capture opens the door to a new form of acting not confined by physicality. In some cases, actors can portray creatures not physically similar to humans, like Benedict Cumberbatch playing Smaug in the Hobbit movies. Furthermore, motion capture can more accurately replicate real world physics than pure digital animation. Finally, motion capture makes animation easier for smaller studios. For example, the online series RWBY uses motion capture, despite not being produced by a large Hollywood studio.
However, many claim that motion capture simply does not look good. Pixar is known for avoiding motion capture. They prefer to let the artistic sensibilities of the animators take over. The credits of Ratatouille even bragged “100% Pure Animation – No Motion Capture!” Pixar’s claim is not without merit. Robert Zemekis’s previously mentioned studio ended up failing. After Polar Express, the studio’s following box office numbers were modest at best. When Mars Needs Moms preformed disastrously, the studio closed its doors for good. The studio’s animation had two problems. First, the rubbery and stiff looking human characters were often stuck in the uncanny valley, turning away some viewers. Secondly, it is harder for computer animation to age well because the standard for what is considered “realistic” quickly changes. Motion capture animation can have an incredibly short shelf life if not done well.
Either way, motion capture sits at the crossroads of film’s creative and technical elements. Both creativity and technical skill will be needed to use motion capture well in the future. If done right, the technology will pave the road for more strange and wonderful characters for filmgoers to fall in love with.