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Amazing Motion Capture in Movies

Writer: Casey Lee


Time for some Ridley Scott action!

Motion capture is the process of tracking and recording movements of a person or objects with markers, that are later then used to animate a computer-generated character. A descendant of the rotoscoping technique, motion capture is now one of the cutting edge technologies of film making that is constantly evolving, even when it has already become a mainstream method when it comes to creating more realistic characters on screen.


The transformation of Andy Serkis to Caesar in various stages.

All the apes in the movie are Motion Capture generated.

Mark Ruffalo performing in Motion Capture as The Hulk in "The Avengers"

It's rather amazing to think what moviemakers can do from just having multiple cameras pointed around an actor dressed in a dark leotard with bright coloured markers that results into one of the most spectacular visual characters that the movie industry has seen since the last decade.

With "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" becoming the latest showcase of how far motion capture is now capable of, it's best not to forget that the technology had took almost a decade of trials and errors, innovations and ingenuity, to be where it is today as we list down the movies that had make the tremendous steps for this latest piece of film making technology.

 

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

In one of the first known instances of motion capture technology being applied in film making, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" may not be remembered today for having the greatest of plots or the most exciting of action sequences, but it is hailed as the first widely released animated feature primarily made with motion capture. Motion capture in film making during the 90s was still a young invention, which was only used to capture the broadest of movements of the characters, while the voices were still provided by voice actors.

After the movements were captured, it took the 200 man production crew spending a combined total of about 120 man-years to organise, composite and finally render the 15 terabytes worth of data into the finished product. The result of which had awed audiences for its photorealistic movements, facial expressions, detailing of skin, clothing and most of all, the hair. There were 40 members of the crew who were solely dedicated on making sure that the 60,000 strands of hair on Dr. Aki Ross would flow as well as you see them on a shampoo ad.

Although it took four years and the crushed dreams of a video game company to branch into the movie business, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" had left its mark of showing the potential of motion capture animation, by combining photorealistic rendering down to the finest detail with true-to-life anatomical motions to create lifelike characters that would set the benchmark of how CG characters should look and feel on the screen.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

After successfully bringing Middle-Earth to life with finely crafted props and high quality digital creations put on the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand, Peter Jackson's second entry into his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was going to need more razzle and dazzle, if he wanted to blow away expectations set in the first. Little did anyone know that the greatest technical achievement of the trilogy was lurking in the shadows, and was given a brief mention in "The Fellowship of the Ring".

When "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" first introduced Gollum, it was the first time when audiences would see a photo-realistic character that had such wild and fluid motions as though it was a living being right beside the live actors. Originally planned to be a fully CG character, Peter Jackson was so impressed by the audition of an actor who enrolled for Gollum that he scrapped the idea and decided to have Gollum's movement created with motion capture. That actor was Andy Serkis.

Doing so, however, presented another challenge. As there was no way to blend the motion captured character with the live actors in the same take on the same set, so each scene with Gollum had to be filmed twice, one on set with Serkis and the other actors and the other with just Serkis on a soundstage (called a 'volume') for motion capture.

For the success of creating an almost lifelike character, "The Two Towers" would go on to repeat the success of "The Fellowship of the Ring" in the Oscars, and would ultimately put two names on the map of motion capture; Weta Digital and Andy Serkis.

The Polar Express (2004)

While Peter Jackson used motion capture to accompany his live-action trilogy, director Robert Zemeckis was exploring the use of motion capture to enhance the animated feature. In his adaptation of "The Polar Express", Zemeckis used motion capture for all of his characters, except for the hot chocolate scene which required defying the laws of physics. Instead of using different actors for each character, he mainly used a handful. Tom Hanks, who was originally thought to play as the conductor, would provide the motions for five characters, including its main protagonist, the Hero Boy.

This highlighted a benefit of motion capture in that after the motion has been pinned onto a digital model, it was up to the whims and wizardry of the digital animators to decide on the appearance of the character, be it with a different facial feature or size. This essentially eliminates the limits on the physique of the motion actor, which would be a boon to create the next major feature on this list.

Robert Zemeckis would continue to make several more motion captured animations after "The Polar Express", which was followed by "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol", using mostly the same techniques he learned from "The Polar Express". Zemeckis even founded a motion capture company called ImageMovers Digital, thinking that motion captured animations would be the next big thing, but was unable to create a lasting appeal for them before the company was shut down.

King Kong (2005)

While overseeing post-production work for "The Return of the King", Universal Pictures approached director Peter Jackson to see if he was interested in a remake of 1933's "King Kong"; the film that had inspired Jackson to be a filmmaker.

Despite having all they know about motion capture from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the challenge facing Jackson this time was to create a convincing 25 feet tall gorilla. Aside from having Andy Serkis study the movements and behaviour of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, the characterisation of King Kong was a different beast altogether since it could not express itself through any lines, unlike Gollum. In order for audiences to be able to understand the feelings of King Kong, they would have to do it through the minute details of his facial expressions.

After capturing all the body motions as King Kong, Serkis was seated down with 132 markers on his face for two months just to capture every facial muscle movement for every expression. It was in "King Kong" that the next innovation of motion capture in filmmaking would be seen; facial motion capture. This innovation would be another step in the evolution of motion capture, but motion and facial capture was still done separately since the facial motion capture required more cameras. That would soon change, however.

Avatar (2009)

With motion capture being the cutting edge of all movie making technologies; it was almost natural that it would attract directors who are always on the lookout for the next horizon. Sensing that the technology has reached the level he wanted, director James Cameron blew off the dust from a pet project of his that was supposed to be his next feature after 1997's "Titanic". Set to have a vibrant environment on an alien moon, with giant blue-skinned tribal aliens, and a lush jungle filled with all sorts of alien life forms, James Cameron was going to revolutionize filmmaking once again with "Avatar".

Other than adopting the latest technologies at his disposal (including a customised system for shooting in 3D), Cameron also introduced a new innovation to motion capture from an idea he had drawn on a piece of napkin; a head-rig with an attached boom and a camera at the end, pointed at the face of the actor. By doing so, the facial motion capture could be done simultaneously, while the actors performed in the motion capture suits, allowing actors to fully immerse into their characters and bring out their emotions as naturally as possible. Cameron's innovation changed the way the motion capture process would be done from then on, marrying both body and facial motion capture to be done at the same time within the same volume. This combination was to be called 'Performance Capture', indicating that it would be able to capture both the motion and emotion of the actors through the combination of the body and facial movements of their characters that makes them all the more like living and breathing characters.

                                             Watch how Performance Capture was used in "Avatar".

Another innovation Cameron also introduced was real time motion capture, where a screen was installed in the volume. While shooting, the screen would project a low-res render of the digital model that is representing the actor, allowing both actors and the director to see the outcome of their performance immediately and adjust accordingly. This had changed the dynamics of performance capture, when before the recording had to be stopped before adjustments can be made.

These techniques would become a milestone for motion capture to become a mainstream method in high budget productions. Similar setups would be used by Steven Spielberg for "The Adventures of Tintin", and it can be seen being used in "The Avengers" (to create the first motion captured Hulk), and "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey".

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

While the movies with motion capture that came before "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" had almost perfected motion capture as a filmmaking process to build spectacular visions from, it would still have its limitations. Prior to "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", motion capture could only be performed in a volume, an enclosed and controlled space, due to the tremendous amounts of rigging and camera setup required to capture all the optical markers on the performers' suits and face.

For the Golden Gate Bridge scene in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", director Rupert Wyatt and the technical minds from Weta Digital pushed the envelope further by attempting to perform motion capture in an outdoor environment, where sunlight could confuse the cameras to capture the markers. To combat this, the optical markers were replaced with self-emitting LED markers that were captured with highly sensitive cameras. This increased the scale of motion capturing to a different stage for the outdoor scene, which was performed on a 400 foot outdoor set, with up to six performers in mocap suits.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" not only made another technological breakthrough for motion capture in filmmaking, but it had also raised a new debate about the performing arts. Andy Serkis's captured performance as Caesar had not only just erupted the character out of the uncanny valley, but became so convincing that award circuits started considering if a performance artist should be given equal consideration for an acting award.

Cinema Online, 11 July 2014



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