Gorilla-fied ‘Rampage’ Star Reveals How to Prep for Motion Capture Acting

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Photo Source: Courtesy Warner Bros.

At 6-foot-9, Jason Liles never believed he’d be sought after for a motion capture role. But when the team behind “Rampage” needed talent to depict a gorilla who’d hover over star Dwayne Johnson, they turned to Liles, who spoke with Backstage about what exactly motion capture acting entails—and how you can get your start, too.

What is the purpose of motion capture acting?
With motion capture, any actor can be any character no matter their sex, age, height, weight, race. It’s typically used with nonhuman roles that cannot be achieved through practical effects. What an actor does when working in motion capture is no different [than regular acting], the only thing that’s different is how the crew and creative team are capturing your performance. It’s like putting on digital makeup after you have already done your performance, rather than putting it on in the morning.

READ: 2 Tips for Acting on a Special-Effects Heavy Film

How did you get into motion capture acting?
I thought I would never do performance capture because my height is very helpful with practical effects. People say, “We want to make you even taller and put makeup on you and make you scary.” That made sense to me, but for “Rampage,” they wanted someone taller than Dwayne Johnson, who is about 6-foot-5. So when [my character] George is normal size, Dwayne has to look up to him. I thought my height would never help me get a performance capture role—and then it did.

What is the process for shooting motion capture?
You’re wearing these gray PJs that look like a onesie, and the material is the opposite side of Velcro. You take these dots that have Velcro on them and place them on very specific points on this suit that you’re wearing. [Those are then] picked up by about 20 infrared cameras positioned on a grid above you. You could be playing a human through motion capture, or a gorilla or King Kong or Gollum. There is also usually what’s called a facial performance capture helmet, and that has a little pole coming out of it, so any time you move your head, it captures every bit of your face. Then the infrared camera takes the musculature of your face and puts it into the character.

What is the difference between motion capture acting and traditional acting?
It’s the exact same, they just use different kinds of cameras and technology to capture it. The thing I found out when I started researching for “Rampage” was that for motion capture roles, there are no tricks. It’s all acting. Whether you’re a stage actor, film actor, motion capture actor, Shakespearean actor—it’s all acting. But this is the niche I recently have fallen into.

READ: 15 Actors Who Nailed Motion Capture Performances

How do you prepare for a motion capture role?
It just depends on the role. If it’s a human role, then I prepare like I would for any other role. If it’s something nonhuman, then I have to do research on how the director and I see that character. If it’s a dragon or something, what can I look at? I can look at lizards, snakes, kind of researching for the physical movement. No matter what, it’s always creating a character in three ways: vocally, physically, and psychologically. The prep isn’t different. You could easily be doing some theater and playing a dragon and playing it the same way as you would be doing performance capture.

Do you have any advice for actors to get into performance capture specifically?
Train as an actor in theater, learn the ins and outs of working in front of a camera. If you want to be a performance capture actor, a lot of the time it will be for nonhuman roles, so look at other people who have played nonhuman roles and learn and steal from them. Be able to create a character fully and don’t worry about looking stupid in PJs with dots all over them. It’s really just be a great actor, and a role will come along.

On the hunt for an acting gig? Apply to casting calls on Backstage.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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