The History of Motion-Capture and its Battle for Awards Respect

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This guide through the history of motion-capture leaves us with one question: Why doesn’t the technology garner more respect?

Andy Serkis has one of the most memorable scenes in Star Wars Episode VI: The Last Jedi. But you don’t see him. Snokes doesn’t really resemble him at all, but that’s been the case for his most memorable work. It’s just another performance he was able to create using motion-capture technology.

The actor, 53, has become the unofficial poster boy for the technology for the past few decades. It started with his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises. It was a role that was the first to shine a bright light on what motion-capture, or performance-capture, can do. Since then its popularity has skyrocketed, and many have used it to help bring their cinematic worlds to life.

Motion-Capture Before Middle Earth

IGN reports that the technology’s beginnings go back to to the early 1900s with animator Max Fleischer. He devised the Rotoscope to give his cartoon characters a human-like fluidity. He did this by tracing over frames of live-action film. His series Out Of The Inkwell used this method, which included animated classics Koko the Clown and Fitz the Dog.

It wasn’t long before Walt Disney took notice. He was looking for new ways to bring his company’s now-iconic characters to life, so the company started using the Rotoscope in its films. The first film to use it was Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937), which was also their first feature-length movie. After that smash success they used the technology for many other films such as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Sleeping Beauty.

Fleischer and Disney’s success with the technology weren’t flukes, according to IGN. Ralph Bakshi used it to animate his Lord of the Rings (1978) movie and again with American Pop (1981). 12 years later he used it in Cool World (1992) where a young Brad Pitt starred alongside an animated Kim Basinger. Director Richard Linklater continued to use the technology in Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006).

Before Waking Life, however, the technology hit a milestone. After several years of work Sinbad: Beyond The Veil of Mists was released in 2000. In terms of box office performance it was a failure, but it was the first animated film to primarily use the technology that Serkis would help make famous.

The technology was on Hollywood’s radar, but its cost kept its use at a minimum. It was used very sparingly in The Mummy (1999), and when Ridley Scott wanted to replicate 2,000 extras to show a huge crowd size.

Then George Lucas took it to the next level, by putting Ahmed Best into a “tight scuba suit” to film all of his movements for the now infamous Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Animators then painted the body of the Gungan on Best, making the character the first fully digital character in movie history.

Square Pictures’ Gamble and the World Meets Gollum

In 2001 Square Pictures thought they could change the face of cinema with ‘CGi actors’ such as Aki Ross. Their first attempt was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Box office wise it was a failure as according to Box Office Mojo it only grossed $85,131,830 globally with a production budget of $137 million according to Inverse.

But it did set some benchmarks in terms of technology. It was entirely photo-real, motion-captured, and computer-animated. 1,327 live action scenes were filmed and then digitally animated.

That same year, IGN reports that director Peter Jackson teased Gollum’s appearance in the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Jackson brought motion-capture technology to the next level in The Two Towers by allowing Serkis to act alongside the other actors while dressed in his motion-capture suit. It was the first film that didn’t require motion-capture actors to add their parts at a later date.

The Genre World Already Recognises

His performances haven’t gone unnoticed from every awards show. The Saturn Awards, which recognise excellence in the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres, have recognised him four times. He’s taken home two awards for Best Supporting Actor: the first one for his now-iconic Gollum character in the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in 2003, and the second for his role as Caesar in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2012. His portrayal of those characters also earned him another two nominations in that same category in 2004 (LOTR: Return of the King) and 2015 (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).

Keep in mind he has received both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations in the past. But it wasn’t for his motion-capture work. He received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television for HBO’s Longford for his portrayal of Ian Brady in 2008. Then he was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for Little Dorrit in 2009 where he co-starred alongside Claire Foy (Netflix’s The Crown).

No Small Task

When you look at the finished product of Caesar or Gollum the only remnant of Serkis is the voice. But in an Op-Ed for Deadline for the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, co-star James Franco wrote about the Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar. He stressed how vital Serkis was to bringing to the character to life.

“Every gesture, every facial expression, every sound he made was captured, his performance was captured,” he says. “Then, what the Weta effects team did was to essentially “paint” the look of Caesar over Andy’s performance.”

Franco also went on to write that while what he calls “digital makeup” turned Serkis into Caesar, it was the actor’s performance that created Caesar’s soul. He even highlighted other actors whose characters who came to life with the help prosthetic makeup: John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Nicole Kidman in The Others, and Sean Penn in Milk. He said that it’s forgotten that there is an actual performer bringing the character to life, because the makeup is so well done. He stresses that it’s especially true in Serkis’ case.

“Those actors depended on make-up artists to augment the look of their characters, but the performance underneath came solely from the actors,” he writes. “Well, that’s exactly the same position that Andy is in. His problem is that the digital ‘make-up’ is so convincing that it makes people forget that he provides the soul of Caesar. That soul, the thing that was so compelling about that film, came from Andy, and the way he rendered that soul is of equal importance, if not more important than the photo realistic surface of the character.”

For actor Steve Zahn, it was his first time acting with motion-capture technology. He told The Wrap that he doesn’t think he would’ve been able to do it without his theatre training.

“To be honest, this was the hardest acting job I’ve ever done! If I didn’t have experience in theatre before this I don’t know if I could have done it,” he says. “I mean, I do feel like I’m tooting my own horn when I get asked this, but you have to be really good to do this stuff!”

Current Hurdles

So, what’s the holdup? Isn’t it about time we see Andy Serkis at least receive a nomination for an Oscar? While to many the answer is ‘yes,’ the New York Observer‘s Thelma Adams mentions a few reasons why the recognition hasn’t come yet.

“They’re up against the bias against popcorn movies,” she tells The Washington Post. Indie art house movies and British biopics are always more likely bets. “The other hurdle is the suspicion that motion-capture, despite everything Andy Serkis wisely says in his beautiful accent, is not really a gold statuette-winning performance.”

Fear of change may be a factor, too. The Hollywood Reporter‘s awards columnist Scott Feinberg told USA Today that awards voters are cautious about normalising motion-capture performances. One of the biggest groups of awards voters is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ acting branch.

“They fear this is another step to not needing actors at all,” he says. “They don’t want to expedite the process by honoring it.”

Possible Solutions

Alan Tudyk (I, Robot, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) has also used motion-capture to help bring his characters to life. He first used the technology alongside Will Smith and Bridget Moynahan in I, Robot as the robot Sonny. He and Hall Hickel, who worked with Tudyk on the visual effects side to create Rogue One‘s K-2SO, did an interview in early 2017 with Screen Rant where he was asked about motion-capture performances receiving major awards.

“I would say they should be, because who doesn’t want an Oscar?” he says.”But they should be a team. It would be a co-award because it is not just one or the other.”

He said that what he does informs Hickel’s work. Hickel agreed that actors who use motion-capture technology should get nominated for the major awards. But he wasn’t on board with the co-award idea. That’s because he says there’s already a visual effects award category. He also cited John Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man.

“For a character who’s just amazing, who’s a motion-capture character – this is not motion-capture, but think of John Hurt as the Elephant Man. We don’t see his face in the whole film, but Oscar worthy performance,” he says.

Hope on the Horizon

Most awards voters have yet to recognise Serkis for his work, but the critics are certainly on his side. USA Today‘s Bryan Alexander chose Serkis’ final turn as Caesar as one of his out-of-the-box Oscar picks for best actor.

“Serkis is heartbreaking and mesmerising in his third appearance as Caesar in the final instalment of the Planet of the Apes trilogy, masterfully handling Caesar’s full range of emotion, from blinding anger to subtle sadness,” he says. “Academy, vote Caesar.”

Education could help as well. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves tells USA Today that actors learn a lot about the motion-capture process when they’re working alongside Serkis.

“There’s this expectation they’ll be coming into some VFX movie playing opposite tennis balls,” says Reeves. “But what they’re actually doing is playing opposite Andy. In that way, it’s no different than me doing an independent drama with two actors.”

Only time will tell if voters are ready to accept Serkis and other actors who use motion-capture in their coveted circle. Can they look past the technology? Will voters finally recognise that it is the actors that give these characters their soul? Serkis tells USA Today that he’s hopeful.

“People seem to be responding to this performance on another level, saying, ‘It’s so moving. And it’s you,'” Serkis says.

In the end, it’s not the awards that are most important to him. He just wants everyone to understand what motion-capture, or performance capture, is.

“It’s nothing more than acting, pure acting,” he says. “I think the perception is shifting.”

If you enjoyed reading about the history of motion-capture, you probably like learning about movies. In that case, we like you. Have a read through this article explaining the term ‘genre film’.

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