Motion Capture

I no longer see films in theatres as much as I used to, and although I like to blame this on adulting, I believe the real culprit is the limited social circle I have where I am currently living. When most of your friends are out of town, you don’t have as many opportunities to go to the theatre. Most of my time in front of a screen is now dominated either by work, television or catching up on older movies. As a result, I sometimes lose track of upcoming releases. Logan was a dominant blip on my radar, and then Wonder Woman, Justice League and Star Wars took over.

Amidst these films I forgot about War of the Planet of the Apes. Its predecessors both exceeded my expectations, and the film’s main actor also brings me back to the character that truly birthed my love of film.

I remember seeing Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers back in 2002, and later learning that Gollum was performed via motion capture. Instead of being solely computer generated, Andy Serkis provided the movements and voice for the character, which was then edited in post production to give us one of the greatest CGI creations in cinematic history. Special effects age fast, but at the time Gollum could easily be mistaken for a real person (albeit a hideous one). Even today, Gollum still looks better than the CGI creations from more recent films.

As I look back on The LOTR trilogy, I can safely say that Gollum is one of the characters that marked my shift from a regular movie-goer to a true cinephile: The type of person that could discuss all details of a film all day. From that moment, I didn’t just talk about how attractive the actors were, like most people. I was interested in what went on behind the scenes, budgets, directors a.k.a all the details most people viewed as boring or geeky.

Andy Serkis is undoubtedly a pioneer of motion capture, which has evolved since his days on the set of Lord of the Rings. Motion capture is becoming more common in films, tv shows and even video games. Productions ranging from The Last of Us to The Revenant have utilized it to create CGI animals or characters whose movements and features are more realistic than ones we could get otherwise. Older films have used humans as props for their CGI e.g. using an actor as a prop who would then be edited in post-production. However, this form of “motion capture” mainly helped the other actor by giving them a spot to look at during filming. One infamous example is The Fellowship of the Ring using a tennis ball as a reference for the Balrog’s location. If this scene was done with true motion capture, the Balrog’s movements would be performed by a human in some form of motion capture suit, like the one scene below for The Last of Us.

Some people used to argue that voice acting isn’t real acting since it is more limited. I never believed this and viewed voice acting as a comparable, if not greater feat, since it deprives actors of the tool of body language for conveying emotions. Many actors end up doing some voice work in post-production, where they have to redo lines in a studio in order to counter all of the background noise from the production reels. In the era of motion capture, many actors become voice actors during principle filming. We don’t see them on screen, but they are the ones providing the movements and/or voice for a character. In the case of Bradley Cooper, he only does the voice for Rocket Racoon in Guardians of the Galaxy, while the director’s brother does the motions. For other productions, such as Grand Theft Auto V the actors end up doing both. Video games increasingly use motion capture and I wouldn’t be surprised if motion capture is involved in every game’s production in fifty years, if virtual entertainment doesn’t dominate by then.

War of the Planet of the Apes will undoubtedly prove to be another marvel of motion capture, just like the series as a whole.If Matt Reeves ends the series on a strong note, it will be all the proof I need that the solo Batman solo film is in good hands.

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