Theatrical Cinema

Oliver Lyttelton’s article A Brief History of Motion-Capture, from Gollum to Caesar provides a good overview of the development of performance capture in feature film reaching back to the live action reference techniques that animators used in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs up to the latest mocap techniques developed for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

This fan compilation shows the Disney studio’s extensive use of live action performance as animation reference.


Taken from Noelene Clark’s LA Times interview with Andy Serkis:

On performance-capture technology: Actors often ask that question, “Are we going to be replaced by digital characters?” I think this is all part of the bigger debate about the notion of what performance capture really is all about. For me, I’ve never drawn a distinction between live-action acting and performance-capture acting. It is purely a technology. It’s a bunch of cameras that can record the actor’s performance in a different way. In terms of animation, animators are actors as well. They are fantastic actors. They have to draw from how they feel emotionally about the beat of a scene that they’re working on. They work collaboratively. They all have to understand the psyche of the role that they’re developing. And that will never change. It’s an art form. It’s like saying, “Well, now that photography has arrived, nobody can paint anymore.” Or, “Now that we’re shooting on digital, nobody can use film anymore.” No one’s saying anything is to the exclusivity of anything else. … Without taking away any of the visual effects work that animators and visual effects artists and programmers and technicians in the visual effects world, in my mind, it is a form of digital makeup. … But look, Pixar’s not going to go away. All of those great animation studios, they’re doing fantastic, beautiful work with scripts that are just brought to life in a different way. … [Performance capture is] such a liberating tool. I am quite evangelical about it to other actors because I think it’s such a wonderful — it’s a magic suit you put on that allows you to play anything regardless of your size, your sex, your color, whatever you are. As long as you have the acting chops and the desire to get inside a character, you can play anything. so I long for it to be accepted by the acting profession so that it can proliferate.


This promo “making of” clip shows something of the blended techniques used to create the performance of Gollum in The Two Towers. Andy Serkis’s virtuosic performance embodying the two aspects of the Gollum/Sméagol character used a combination of filmed interaction with the other actors (with Serkis’s body language and facial expressions recorded), another pass capturing Serkis’s detailed facial expressions while speaking the character’s lines, and a full body performance on a motion capture stage. All of these performances were given to a skilled team of 3D CG character animators as deep reference for key frame animating the Gollum character for compositing into the live action scenes.


The process for creating Gollum’s performances in The Hobbit were modified based upon the continuous development in motion capture techniques that had occurred since the making of The Twin Towers. Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Gollum was now integrated into a more direct work flow with the potential to enhance the direct interaction between the actors.


James Cameron explains the value of the head-rig in performance capture acting.


Hollywoood Dailies hype for the artistic breakthroughs of Avatar.


Media Magic presents an in depth look at Avatar performance capature.


June Chi’s article: James Cameron and the Giant Hype: Motion Capture Misrepresented?

“Eight years ago, a reason why Andy Serkis was denied an Oscar nomination was a lack of recognition for how the computer, the actor, and the animator created Gollum’s performance in The Lord of the Rings. Last month, James Cameron brought up the same issue when Avatar actors Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana were left out of Oscar consideration.”


The discourse on the role of the actor as motion capture performer continues.  The 2011 and 2014 Planet of the Apes films provide clear distinctions based on the rapidly evolving technological innovations driving performance capture. The power to faithfully reproduce the subtle movements that portray the internal states of the actor become more obvious.


In this Dawn of the Planet of the Apes video, actor Terry Nolan demonstrates the way a performer can embody the character being portrayed. It is this sophisticated level of performance translated to the artfully designed computer graphics puppet that provides the base for a total suspension of disbelief.


Nick Broughall writes in the November 21, 2014 edition of Techradar:

For the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the team at Weta took the motion capture to the next level by moving from a passive technology to an active one.

While the team initially trialled the active technology during 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the early suits were quite fragile, with cords and cables easily broken.

So for the second Apes film, instead of having the actors wear dull grey suits with little reflective balls attached, Weta developed a system that used active IR LED lights within the suit itself.

“The strength of [the active system], and the reason it was developed here – obviously for Apes the most important thing for us was being able to get really strong performances, and our ability to put the ape actors on location with the human actors was probably the single biggest advantage we have. And this system here meant that we could be outdoors in full sunlight and actually capture motion,” explained Animation Supervisor at Weta, Dan Barrett.

“[It’s] quite a lovely kind of rig we have here. On Rise [of the Planet of the Apes] it was a bit more of a prototype, we’d get a lot more breakages and things, cables would come out but what we’ve done is cast it into rubber so we it’s a lot more robust and we don’t really have any problems any more we don’t have any dropped markers, so even when Andy [Serkis] and Toby [Kebbell] are having a fistfight on the dam, and beating each other up and rolling around on the ground, we continue to capture the data.” Barrett said.


Andy Serkis interviewed by Marlow Stern at the Daily Beast, 8 July 2014:

Q: What are the biggest hurdles, for you, in doing a motion capture performance versus a live-action one? It does seem like a mo-cap performance takes a greater suspension of disbelief on the part of the actor, since you’re in a gray suit covered in sensors.

A:The fact of the matter is I have done so many parts. Even going back as far as the playing of Gollum on set, I never considered it any different than if I was playing him in a loincloth and prosthetic makeup; I wouldn’t have approached the character any differently. That’s the thing that needs to be understood: Performance capture is just a technology that picks up everything you’re doing, but in terms of embodying the role physically, mentally, and doing all the research, you do that with any character you play as an actor. We are creatures of imagination and trick ourselves into believing we’re murderers, lovers, etc., so what you wear is just a superficial coating. I’ve never drawn a distinction between doing a motion-capture performance and one without motion-capture technology, because it’s just a different set of cameras

Director of Rise of Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt says of Andy Serkis:

“Andy would’ve been perfectly suited for the silent movie era.  He’s very expressive, and uses every part of his body and face to convey emotion and narrative. I relate it to the Charlie Chaplins and Buster Keatons of this world; they were great comics and great tragedians as well.”