Have you been marveled by Gollum and Smaug in The Hobbit, wondered about Davy Jones’s tentacled head in The Pirates of the Caribbean, felt the Hulk’s anger in The Avengers, or been awed by the Na’vi in Avatar? If you said yes to any or all… congratulations, because you have experienced an inkling of the magic that is possible through motion capture.
Called ‘Mo-cap’ in short, this technology was developed as a way to automate a popular technique that was used in landmark films like 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or 1978’s The Lord of the Rings.
In those days, to speed up the process of traditional animation, artists would draw over the motion of actors from a projection of live-action footage to produce the final animated footage.
Needless to say, it was a lengthy and arduous process: movement was first traced for main or ‘key’ poses (which came to be called key frames), following which the flow of action in intermediate frames would be filled in.
During the 1980s, there were several developments in bio mechanics, which led to such devices being used in conjunction with computers to produce characters and animation like some stunt doubles in 1995’s Batman Forever or Jar Jar Binks in 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. In the 2000’s, motion capture began to be more widely used.
Peter Jackson, in The Lord of the Rings films, used mo-cap extensively for the character of Gollum (played by Andy Serkis): an elaborate system of 25 cameras were used to record the actor’s movement and apply the information from the markers to a 3D model.
Serkis and Jackson teamed up once more to create 2005’s King Kong, where facial markers were used for the first time. 2004’s The Polar Express was the next milestone as a 3D film to be created using motion capture technology.
Its director, Robert Zemeckis, refined his technique in 2007’s Beowulf and 2009’s A Christmas Carol. The Pirates of the Caribbean films were unique as actors were filmed in mo-cap suits and markers on-set rather than in a studio as was done previously.
The breakthrough in realistic motion capture came with 2006’s Happy Feet (Animal Logic) – which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature – and 2009’s Avatar (WETA Digital).
The director of the latter film, James Cameron, a long-time dabbler in special effects techniques, even devised what he called a ‘virtual camera’ that enabled him to view the actors’ motion in their CGI avatars as they were being filmed.
The astounding level of detail that was captured sets Avatar apart even today in terms of quality. Motion capture that incorporated actors’ expressions in addition to body movement began to be termed ‘performance capture’.
Since then, motion capture technology has only moved forward. Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital continues to be a leading supervisor of mo-cap in films.
Andy Serkis, who has played several characters requiring motion capture, founded The Imaginarium Studios, which has provided cutting-edge mo-cap for films like 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (both of which featured Serkis as a main character) and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
We can only watch to see what comes next, but one thing is for sure: it will be worth waiting for.