15 of the Best Motion Capture Actors

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Photo Source: Courtesy New Line Cinema

Summer movie season means over-the-top action sequences, mind-blowing special effects, and 3D magic dominating the theaters, and CGI is better than ever. As digital animation grows more advanced each year, big-time filmmakers like James Cameron and JJ Abrams have embracing the form of acting known as motion capture performance. Made most popular by “King of Mo-Cap” Andy Serkis in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, motion capture is an integral tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal and an exciting new challenge for the actors involved. Do you know who’s behind your favorite digital performances? Here are 15 amazing motion capture actors and the animated characters they created.

Andy Serkis

Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” Captain Haddock in “The Adventures of Tintin,” Godzilla in “Godzilla,” and Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Stunning, creepy, and heartbreaking as the demon-esque imp Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Andy Serkis is inarguably the best-known motion capture actor in the world. He pioneered the field with his work in “The Lord of the Rings,” and brought life to “The Adventures of Tintin,” “Godzilla,” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Serkis was the motion capture consultant for “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” in addition to performing the role of Ulysses Klaue. Other exciting upcoming mo-cap gigs? Serkis portrayed Baloo in “Jungle Book: Origins,” which he also directed, and the Supreme Leader Snoke in “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens.”

Andy Serkis as Gollum
Tinseltown/Shutterstock.com and Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Alan Tudyk

Sonny in “I, Robot”

A marvel of computer animation at the time, 2004’s “I Robot” starred Will Smith as an anti-robot police officer in a highly tech-reliant future. Though digital effects artists are behind most of the robots in the film, actor Tudyk created about 80 percent of lead character Sonny’s performance by donning a motion capture suit on set.

Seth Rogen

Paul in “Paul”

This 2011 comedy stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as alien-loving nerds on a road trip, and features a hilarious Rogen as the voice and movements of a slacker extra-terrestrial named Paul. The actor worked in-studio to capture the character’s essence, creating as realistic a stoner-alien as could ever be portrayed.

Zoe Saldana

Neytiri in “Avatar”

Director James Cameron helmed this groundbreaking 2009 hit, aided by an incredible (and Oscar-winning) special effects team and cinematographer. Saldana was lauded for her touching performance as Na’vi Neytiri, created on a specially designed motion capture stage alongside fellow performance capturers Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver.

Zoe Saldana in 'Avatar'
Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com and Twentieth Century Fox

Seth MacFarlane

Ted in “Ted”

This silly 2012 flick stars writer-director McFarlane as Ted, a childhood teddy bear come-to-life in full raunchy glory. In addition to directing the film and voicing the lead character, McFarlane wore an Xsens motion capture suit and performed off-camera with co-stars Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis throughout filming.

Mark Ruffalo

The Hulk in “The Avengers”

Though not the first actor to portray the giant green superhero (and his human counterpart Bruce Banner) onscreen, Ruffalo is acclaimed for his humanized take in “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” While digital effects created the Hulk’s intimidating stature, Ruffalo worked in-studio to ground the character and bring realism to his movements and emotions.

Tom Hanks

Hero Boy, Father, Conductor, Hobo, Scrooge, and Santa Claus in “The Polar Express”

Robert Zemeckis’ 2004 film about a young boy’s journey to the North Pole was created entirely through motion capture computer animation, a groundbreaking process at the time. Hanks stretched himself (literally) with six different mo-cap roles, including the train’s Conductor, Scrooge, and Santa Claus, all shot on meticulously designed performance capture sets.

Bill Nighy

Davy Jones in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End"

Nighy broke type in a big way with his role as the cephalopod-styled Davy Jones in the third film of this wildly successful franchise. Unlike many motion capture performances that are shot entirely in-studio, Nighy and his crew donned special suits to shoot on-set with the film’s other actors, creating an incredibly realistic digitally enhanced performance.

Bill Nighy in 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End'
Featureflash/Shutterstock.com and Walt Disney Pictures

Steve Buscemi

Nebbercracker in “Monster House”

Closely following his work on “The Polar Express,” Zemeckis executive produced this 2006 hit along with Steven Spielberg, and director Gil Kenan, and created the larger-than-life neighborhood of the film through motion capture and digital animation. The impressive cast includes Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Buscemi as the voice and movements of the grumpy old neighbor Nebbercracker.

Seth Green

Milo in “Mars Needs Moms”

Though his voice was eventually dubbed over by child actor Seth Robert Dusky, Green created the lifelike movements of this 2011 flick’s 9-year-old hero in a state-of-the-art motion capture studio. Another Zemeckis-produced family film animated through mo-cap technology, director Simon Wells led this story of young Milo’s quest to save his mother (Joan Cusack) after an alien abduction.

Savion Glover

Mumble in “Happy Feet”

Possibly the best-known tap dancer in the world, Glover was the natural pick to portray the tap dancing penguin Mumble in this 2006 animated hit. Though the character was voiced by Elijah Wood, Glover donned a motion capture suit to create all of Mumble’s signature moves, bringing him to life in all his dancing glory.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Smaug in “The Hobbit”

Talk about range! Cumberbatch channeled his inner dragon as Smaug in all three “Hobbit” films, voicing the character and performing the movements in full motion-capture garb. Enhanced by Peter Jackson’s incredible digital effects team, Cubmberbatch brought the evil reptile to life through his nuanced performance.

Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Hobbit'
Jaguar PS/Shutterstock.com and Courtesy Warner Bros.

Ray Winstone

Beowulf, Golden Man, and Dragon in “Beowulf”

Another impressive feat from director Zemeckis, this 2007 fantasty flick inspired a star-studded cast to don mo-cap jumpsuits including Robin Wright, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, and John Malkovich. Winstone starred as the title character (and two other small roles), though the 50-something actor was aged down significantly through the magic of animation.

Jason Cope

Christopher Johnson and all other aliens in “District 9”

This 2009 surprise smash about an alien population forced into segregated camps was shot using a variety of technologies, including live action footage, motion capture, and purely digital animation. Actor Cope performed several roles, donning a mo-cap suit (and occasional stilts) to portray intelligent extraterrestrial Christopher Johnson and all other aliens in the film.

Willem Dafoe

Tars Tarkas in “John Carter”

This veteran actor donned stilts (and learned a fictional language) to bring alien Tars Tarkas to life in 2012’s “John Carter.” Dafoe was joined by fellow extraterrestrials Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church—all three wore motion capture suits and shot the live action film on-location in the desert.

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