From the Stage to the Screen: The Rise of Motion Capture in the Acting Industry
Updated: Nov 8
Motion capture is a state-of-the-art technology that has transformed the world of film, gaming, and animation. This process entails recording the movements of a live subject, typically an actor or athlete, and converting them into a digital format that can be refined and improved in post-production.
During the turn of the millennium, the film industry was poised to unlock the potential of the recent surge in computer technology, contemplating how it could influence their craft. It was with great anticipation, therefore, that the world was introduced to a technical masterpiece, which many believed would alter the course of filmmaking forever. The character? No, not Gollum from Lord of the Rings, so beautifully portrayed by Andy Serkis. The first fully realised motion-captured character is Jar Jar Binks, the much-maligned Gungan who first appeared in 1999's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
The art of Motion Capture has been used in filmmaking for over a century in some form or another. As time passed, technology continued to advance and improve the technique. The 2018 movie adaptation of The Jungle Book, directed by Serkis, was widely considered a pinnacle of this technique. The performances of the actors were converted into photorealistic animals, including the fierce Shere Khan and the lovable Baloo.
Animator Max Fleischer pioneered Rotoscoping, a technique that involved tracing each frame of live-action footage and turning it into an animation that could be coloured. Without this development, there would have been no Disney's Snow White or subsequent animated feature films.
In the 1960s, Lee Harrison III took this technique to the next level by creating a system that utilised adjustable resistors, analogue circuits, and cathode ray tubes, making it possible to record a person's movements and create the first Motion Capture footage.
Although performers like Serkis are rightly heralded as game changers in the field, today, Motion Capture, or Performance Capture as it is also known, is no longer the purview of a select few. Increasingly, actors are adding performance capture to their skill sets and resumes as a way of increasing castability and responding to the requirements of the changing industry.
So, what are the benefits of Performance Capture performance? Serkis told Backstage in 2018, "You can Internalise more. You're able to go very deep, and the stillness is there to allow the audience to project into the character as well". Fellow pioneer James Cameron added, "It's designed to empower the acting process… Actors need not feel afraid of the technology".
To perform in motion capture, one must undergo training to develop the necessary skills and techniques. This training may include physical conditioning, such as strength training and flexibility exercises, as well as dance or martial arts instruction to improve movement quality and precision. Skills can be learned and refined at training schools such as The Motion Capture Vaults and The Imaginarium Studios (Founded by Serkis).
Additionally, performers must learn how to work with specialised equipment, such as motion capture suits and cameras, and understand the technical aspects of the process. The training may also involve learning how to act and react in a virtual environment, responding to imaginary objects and performing characters with realistic movements and expressions.
Beyond the physical and technical aspects, motion capture performers must also possess a deep understanding of storytelling and character development, as they are often tasked with bringing complex and nuanced characters to life in various genres. The training required to perform in motion capture is a multifaceted and challenging process that requires dedication, discipline, and a passion for the art and science of movement.